Skift

Interview: HotelPlanner CEO Defends His Company’s NRA Ties

  • Skift Take
    Stopping people under 21 years old from being able to effortlessly buy assault rifles is a societal decision. But it remains open for debate on how travel companies should treat a gun lobby that opposes such a move.

    HotelPlanner is based in West Palm Beach, Florida, an hour’s drive north from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a 19-year old suspect allegedly used an assault rifle and other weaponry to kill 17 students and teachers on Valentine’s Day.

    While United, Delta, Enterprise, Hertz, Wyndham, and Best Western joined a list of travel companies that have cut their ties to the National Rifle Assocation’s member benefits program in the past week, HotelPlanner is a rare company to buck the trend.

    The National Rifle Association, a powerful pro-gun lobbying group and member organization that has great influence in Congress and spent upwards of $30 million in 2016 to elect President Trump, opposes raising the legal age to buy assault rifles, one of the demands put forth by gun-control advocates after the mass shooting in Florida.

    HotelPlanner is a small, privately held online travel company focusing on group travel that has a business partnership with the National Rifle Association, and powers a website offering below-market rates for flights, hotels, and car rentals to the association’s members. HotelPlanner’s 160 employees and executives own the company.

    Frantic Week

    Since the shooting, HotelPlanner has been the target of hundreds of emotional — and sometimes hateful and personally threatening — phone calls and messages opposing its stance to keep working with the National Rifle Association.

    Despite the barrage of messages pouring in, co-founder and CEO Timothy Hentschel told Skift Thursday that his company will continue to honor its contract with the association.

    For more than two years, HotelPlanner has had a contract to offer National Rifle Association members an online portal to make group bookings of flights, hotels, and rental cars at discounted rates for primarily leisure trips.

    Hentschel is a somewhat unlikely defender of a position to maintain ties with the gun-rights organization. He is not a member of the association and does not own a gun. He supports the right to bear arms and sees many reasons why people would practically want to own guns.

    But he also believes that “reasonable restrictions” are worth discussing, and he said he supported the move by a few retailers, including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart, to stop selling certain guns to people under age 21.

    Henschel said the National Rifle Association’s contribution to his company’s revenue is “insignificant,” but he declined to be specific. If one takes past statements from the private company about its various revenue streams at face value, it seems like the National Rifle Association contract may account for less than a percentage point of revenue.

    Hentschel said his company’s “no boycott” policy is a matter of principle.

    “The hospitality industry has to welcome all guests,” Hentschel said. “Out of all the gatherings that happen in the U.S. every year, a few hundred will be controversial for some people, even some charities.”

    Hentschel also said that vetting clients by political belief is not pragmatic.

    “Disrupting contracted work is not conducive to the sector,” he said. “If we have to buy insurance to cover the potential cost of having to cancel a contract at the last minute because of a political storm, that will cost companies and consumers.”

    To be sure, hoteliers don’t truly welcome all potential guests equally. From time to time, they have drawn the line at serving organizations that espouse beliefs considered to be beyond the pale of democratic norms, such as groups advocating violence or hate.

    Standards seem to be changing, though. As Skift pointed out in one of its 2018 megatrends, today’s politicized atmosphere is leading many consumers to expect travel brands to get political or risk losing favor.

    Media Storm

    On February 23, the storm began when Hentschel responded to an email from someone representing herself to be a concerned citizen, explaining his company’s decision to maintain its contract with the National Rifle Association.

    Hentschel wrote that “as a father of three, we have all been very moved by the recent tragic school shooting,” according to a copy of the email.

    He wrote that his company’s mission was “bringing people together” and that it had to stay faithful to the mission of the hospitality industry. He shared his response with his employees and invited a discussion about it.

    Within hours, Bloomberg quoted part of his words in an article discussing travel companies under pressure.

    The article ricocheted around the internet, with producers from national television news shows and newspapers soon calling for further comment.

    The company’s internal and external public relations teams attempted crisis management. Hentschel did interviews with outlets such as CNBC and Fox Business.

    Company Profile

    Approaching its 15-year anniversary this year, HotelPlanner provides online booking tools for traveling groups.

    Sales of group bookings have resisted efforts at automation and digitization. Today it remains content with many back-and-forths before a contract is settled. Much of global group bookings are still handled primarily offline.

    The company expects to process $10 billion in group hotel travel this year for nearly 4 million groups, which it defines as any multi-person outing, from a wedding party to a conference.

    The company also runs Meetings.com, which is focused specifically on professional gatherings.

    HotelPlanner sees its biggest competitor as Cvent. Cvent tends to focus on group outings larger than 500 people, while HotelPlanner’s sweet spot tends to be in the 100- to 500-room space — with about a quarter of its business being for weddings and family reunions.

    HotelPlanner partners with numerous, well-known, professional sports organizations.

    In 2018, the company plans to build out its “instant group rates” product. Hentschel said, “We’re looking at going to four-star hotels and ask for a consistent group rate it can book in the hotel property management system on behalf of these groups, minimizing the back-and-forth of price quotes and electronic contracts.”

    Voice-powered group bookings is another innovation the company is working on.

    These are problems that the CEO would rather be focused on than political debates, he said.

    “We need a peace accord among the various political factions in the U.S.,” Hentschel said. “And I hope we can book the rooms for the meeting.”

    While HotelPlanner is the target of derision from people opposed to the National Rifle Association, Delta Air Lines is getting pushback from breaking with the association. Delta’s decision to sever ties with the National Rifle Association spurred Georgia lawmakers to remove a tax break that would have benefited the airline.

    Photo Credit: On February 26, HotelPlanner CEO Tim Hentschel appeared on CNBC to discuss his company's contract that enables members of the National Rifle Association to enjoy discounted group travel. CNBC

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