Hotel industry’s top lobbyist bringing it back to Main Street

When the hotel industry faces rough waters, its top lobbyist has a strategy: Keep the discussion local.

Marlene Colucci, with the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AH&LA), credits this approach with several major coups for the industry.

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In one recent case, involving federal rules to ease pool access for the disabled, Colucci and local hoteliers argued to members of Congress that a certain regulatory deadline from the Obama administration left no time for compliance. 

Sympathetic lawmakers sprang to action, and regulators eventually pushed the deadline back until January 2013 — a move some called an election-year dodge by the Obama administration. 

In a recent interview with The Hill, Colucci said the campaign was “a matter of making the issue real” to members of Congress. 

“You want to tell the stories of particular hotels in particular towns,” she said. 

“What did the old timeline mean for someone in Iowa or California? What did the potential liability look like? That way, members come to work in the morning thinking, ‘How is this going to impact the hotels in my district?’ ”

This point had force with House Republicans, who are single-minded in picking out government rules they believe harm the economy. 

But the dogged pursuit of government spending can cut the other way when it comes to the hotel industry, Colucci said. 

This spring, when the General Services Administration was swept up in a scandal over a lavish conference, Colucci says she immediately felt uneasy. 

“There are unintended consequences of that kind of government criticism,” she said. 

“It’s a legitimate issue, and Congress has the right to make sure taxpayer money is well-spent … But suddenly everyone — whether or not they’re a government entity — ends up cutting back on travel. That hurts our hotels, which ends up hurting the people who work in our hotels.” 

She drew a parallel with the effects of the financial bailout legislation — known as TARP — which disallowed some work travel for the companies that received public money.

“Business dropped over 30 percent overnight for the entire industry” following TARP, Colucci said. 

“It’s a good thing to scrutinize the use of taxpayer money, but not to overscrutinize it.

“Our feeling is: If the regulators can’t mingle with the people that they are regulating, then how do they know what is appropriate? If you’re going to make decisions that affect business and the economy, how can you do that if you’re just sitting in your office?

“We try to make politicians understand that whatever they say has a direct impact on what people do. They serve as an example for the country and people follow their lead.”

Now in her seventh year with the AH&LA, Colucci recalls honing her approach from years of watching lobbyists succeed — and fail — in D.C. 

A native Californian, Colucci graduated from Georgetown University Law Center and worked at the now-defunct Heron Burchette Ruckert & Rothwell before moving into litigation at Akin Gump. 

Soon, she shifted to lobbying because it meant quietly “resolving things before they were problems” — a theme in her approach now. 

“That matched my personality better,” she said. 

“I wanted to pre-empt litigation by taking laws and making sure they had the right impact in the first place before they could harm people or create difficulty.”

Colucci later worked in the Labor Department and then in the White House’s Office of Domestic Policy under President George W. Bush. 

In those environments, “you could see which ways of operating were effective and which weren’t,” she said. 

“People who were prepared, who had done all the right messaging, who had done all their homework — they really impressed me. It made me think, ‘When I go back out, I can be a much better advocate.’ ”

This was brought to bear with the pool-access issue, she said. 

Representatives of the disability community, as well as many Democrats in Congress, argue that industry has been slow on compliance. 

Colucci takes exception there. 

“This is not about evil hoteliers trying to deny access,” she said. 

“The pool regulations were announced in 2010, but specific guidance on how to implement them was not issued until the end of January. That left less than two months before the original compliance deadline.” 

The issue came down to what type of lifts — portable or fixed — hotels and other pool proprietors could maintain to satisfy the Justice Department’s (DOJ) rules. 

Colucci called DOJ guidance, issued in January, “extreme.” It stated that every pool would have to install a fixed lift rather than keep a portable one — the solution favored by industry — and still do it within a matter of months.

“Pools will now stay open this summer as a result” of the new deadline her lobbying efforts secured, she said. 

Critics point out that by January 2013, when hotels will need to comply, a President Romney could kill the entire access effort. 

Colucci insists that the hotel industry is on the side of better access, in spite of its costs. 

“It’s a matter of: Are regulators willing to work with the constituency they are regulating? Are they going to make decisions that are reasonable, or decisions that are a negative for job creation?

“Some small hotels would have had to close rather than face the liability” of missing the compliance date, she added.

Colucci’s arguments — even specific phrases — are commonly heard from Republicans on Capitol Hill. 

She says that the influx of small-businessmen and -women into office is “not something to take for granted.” 

“Real-life business experience makes them better policymakers. When they’ve had to hire someone, fire someone, build a business, make difficult decisions … they’re not going to make knee-jerk decisions that might have a long-term negative effect on an industry.” 

She adds that advocating for hotels has been like “coming home”; her father was a restaurant owner and consultant. 

“I think he had a much harder job than I do,” she said. 

“It means I bring something different to this. I can help translate what’s going on in Washington and empower our members on how they can make a difference.”