CELEBRATION – This year is already gearing up to be a lively political season, with Florida being a crucial swing state in the presidential election, and with a competitive U.S. Senate race likely to capture national attention.
But this year, a group of business owners in a critical industry within Polk and Osceola counties will be taking a closer look at local elections, particularly for the state Legislature, hoping to demonstrate some genuine political muscle.
Their issue: to ensure that state lawmakers who write Florida’s business regulations understand the needs, concerns and priorities of the vacation home industry.
“It’s now an election year, and it’s very important that we maintain a high political profile,” said David Leather, who runs Hayes Vacation Homes in Kissimmee and is a member of the trade group representing vacation home property managers, the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association.
“We need to remember who will support tourism, the largest employer in Central Florida,” he said.
The vacation home industry has become one of the fastest growing aspects of Central Florida’s hospitality and lodging field. Vacation homes are fully furnished houses that are rented on a short term basis to tourists or business travelers. The homes appeal to families that come to this region for an extended vacation, and would prefer renting a home with multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, private pool and game room, rather than a hotel room.
The number of vacation homes in this region has continued to expand, even throughout the recession – in part because some property owners, saddled with a mortgage they can barely afford, have turned their property into a business and rented it out as a vacation home. And the industry has gotten stronger in the past year, with bookings on the increase.
But if it sounds like the kind of industry that lawmakers would naturally want to support, that’s not necessarily the case, the association noted.
“There are politicians out there who are tourism-friendly, and those who are not,” said Colin Young, the vice president of the CFVRMA.
A good example of a tourism-unfriendly politician, Leather said, is one who favors burdensome regulations that can be crippling for the industry. A good example was a state law that required vacation home property managers to install sprinkler systems in every house they manage.
While it sounds like a sensible idea to protect guests from fires, Leather noted that the regulation could have put quite a few property managers out of business, since a single sprinkler system can cost up to $20,000 to install, and property managers often manage 20 or more homes. Putting a sprinkler system in every one would have been cost-prohibitive.
Instead, the CFVRMA worked along with the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association – which represents the many hotels, resorts, timeshares and even vacation homes in this region – to recruit a local lawmaker, state Rep. Michael Horner, R-St. Cloud, to propose and then help pass legislation exempting the vacation home industry from these rules.
“If it had not been for the efforts of people like state Rep. Mike Horner, we would all be putting sprinklers in all our houses, and we would be out of business,” Leather said.
The two associations also worked with Horner to successfully pass another piece of legislation critical to the industry, the Tourist Safety Act, also known as the Pizza Flyer Bill. It toughens penalties for organized crime units that target tourists by hiring young people to distribute flyers for fake pizza shops under the doors of local hotel rooms. The goal is to get unsuspecting tourists to call the phone number, order a pizza or other food, and give their credit card information to the criminals.
Leather said CFVRMA decided to join forces with the CFHLA’s political action committee, which enables a member of the property managers group to interview candidates who seek the industry’s endorsement – and find out just supportive they are of the tourism field.
“By joining forces with them, we have a much strong presence,” Leather said.
Young agreed, saying “The ties with CFHLA politically are very good for the tourism industry in general. With the entire tourism industry pulling together, we can have an influence.”
It also creates a major lobbying organization for the entire tourism and hospitality industry, he said, one that will look out for the industry’s interests in Tallahassee.
“We’ll hopefully over the next 11 months continue to forge our links and create a stronger tourism industry in Central Florida,” Young said.
One challenge that the property managers face, Leather acknowledged, is an inability of so many of its members to actually vote in either Florida’s primary in August, or the general election in November. Leather, Young and quite a few other members of CFVRMA are citizens of Britain who are in the United States on a work visa, operating a business here, but unable to vote because they’re not naturalized citizens.
That doesn’t matter, Leather said, and shouldn’t discourage any member of CFVRMA who is British from participating in this crucial election season.
“What we need from you is to promote the hospitality-friendly candidates,” Leather said. “Now, I know a lot of us can’t vote because we’re British – but that doesn’t mean we can’t put up yard signs.”
And nothing stops any of the British business owners in Central Florida, he said, from letting their voices be heard on these issues, even if they can’t go to the polls.
“We need friends in government,” he said. “Don’t think we can’t influence who does get elected.”
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