This month’s third edition of La Cita de Las Americas, the boutique trade show that was created in a little more than six months after the collapse and closure of La Cumbre in 2012, seems to have found a more workable and effective formula in matching up buyers and suppliers and creating more networking time. Rick Still, who founded the now-defunct La Cumbre trade show a quarter century ago and nurtured it into place as the top travel trade show serving U.S. suppliers and Latin American buyers before selling it to Reed Travel Exhibitions and stayed with the company for several years into the mid-part of the first decade of the new millennium, at first called La Cita a “non-trade show” trade show in its first edition. It is now a trade show.
The Inbound Report attended the first La Cita two years ago in Fort Lauderdale, but took a pass last year to see how it would shape up before returning to the third iteration earlier this month at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. We left Boca Raton with the following five takeaways—based on our own observations and after we talked with some three dozen operators, suppliers, U.S. federal agency officials, Latin American journalists and others—which are discussed in more detail further below:
Overall, the market that we call Latin America—for the most part, this means Spanish-speaking or Portuguese-speaking South America, Central America and Mexico—is stable, and Visit USA traffic should increase by single-digit percentage point increases through the next five years.
- As for South America, it’s still mostly about Brazil, and there seems to be no consensus on what the near-term future holds for this market. Some buyers and suppliers told the Inbound Report that they expect that the country’s upscale, big-spending “A” class travelers will continue to visit the USA, despite a 12-year-low in the value of the Brazilian real against the U.S. Dollar and low confidence in an economy that is now in the midst of a recession. Others were quite convincing in their opposing view, however, pointing out that the currency exchange rate between the Brazilian real and the U.S. dollar has nearly doubled the price of air travel to the U.S. in just one year—something that is pushing middle class families to stay at home and vacation in Brazil or somewhere in South America. Most shopping center marketers have said that a drop-off has already resulted in a decline in the volume and value of purchases by Brazilian visitors.
- Colombia is growing as a key market, and has surpassed both neighboring Venezuela, as well as Argentina in Visit USA visitor volume as its peso—while it has declined against the dollar, it has not taken as much of a hit as other currencies—is relatively stable; its national economy is strong; it has a achieved a level of political stability that it has not experienced in a half-century; and lift capacity out of Colombia has grown through new direct flights and connections to the U.S.
- A surprise. No one—absolutely no one—is complaining about the performance of the U.S. State Department’s handling of visa applications and the timeliness of its granting of interviews, although most still grumble about their reception once they arrive in the U.S., but the greeting and processing of visitors to the U.S. is overseen by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service, which is a part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Everyone we spoke with seemed to agree that the ease of securing a visa to travel to the United States is a factor in their positive outlook Visit USA traffic.
- La Cita is Now a Permanent Fixture on the Travel Industry Calendar: After some stops and starts and steps back to check and assess what worked and what didn’t, the newest trade show that “started as a reunion is now a tradition,” in the words of one DMO official. Rick Still, now 68, launched the show with the help of family and friends and his family, primarily in the person of his son Matt and daughter Heather, have taken on more and responsibility and will carry it on at some point in the future.
Now, in order:
- “A steady procession of growth” is the way Ron Erdmann, deputy director of the U.S. National Office of Travel and Tourism, characterized the arrivals numbers from major Latin American national markets over the past dozen years. In some cases, the percentage growth has been dramatic. But Erdmann, a familiar presenter at travel industry conferences, took the occasion to emphasize that some of the larger percentage increases had to do with the small base on which they were measured, while the importance of Mexico is preeminent: “It is eight times larger than the next largest Latin American market (Brazil),” he noted. He also pointed out that all of Latin America comprises a source market larger than Canada.
Key Latin American Markets
U.S. Arrivals, 2013-2014
|Country/Market & Rank||2013 Visitation||2014 Visitation||Percentage Change|
|(000s)||(000s)||2014 vs. 2013|
|7. Dominican Republic||238||272||14%|
|11. Costa Rica||182||203||11%|
|14. El Salvador||105||126||21%|
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, ITA, National Travel and Tourism Office; Statistics Canada; and Banco de Mexico/Secretaria de Turismo (Mexico)
While much of what Erdmann presented, and commented on, has been available for a while, it has been buried deep within the data bases of NTTO, and it is difficult for the agency, with its small staff and meager budget, to accommodate requests for customized configurations. So, although the numbers he revealed are no more recent than 2014 (year-to-date numbers for 2015 have been held up by the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] which tallies them, and has problems related to the slow counting and key-punching of answers from paper surveys, as well as a contractor who has had difficulty with its assignment by DHS), La Cita marked the first forum at which they were released in a form that was directly related to the Latin American market. One consequence of this was that, every time Erdmann shifted to a new table on the big screen projector, anywhere from half-dozen to a dozen or more hands thrust smartphones in the air and snapped photos of the slide.
Mexico has a unique status in Latin America. Its people speak the language of South and Central America, yet it borders the United States and, like Canada and the U.S., is a part of the continent of North America. While some of its increase in arrivals to the United States is due to improved methods of measuring visitor traffic, much of it is due to an increase in the size of its travel ready middle class and a marked increase in lift capacity—especially on the part of Volaris airlines. The low-cost carrier, which launched its first flight to the USA less than six years ago, now flies to more than 20 U.S. destinations from several locations in Mexico. Mexican air passengers are also benefiting from other carriers that connect through Mexico on their way to the U.S.
- In South America, it is still all about Brazil … or mostly about Brazil: Two years ago, at the first La Cita, as far as the South American market was concerned, there was Brazil and then there was everyone else. This year, the nation is still the dominant market in the continent: About one-third of the operators were from Brazil and the lines were longest at the Brazil area on the morning of La Cita’s second day when suppliers sought to schedule last-minute appointments with operators. But there are signs and reports that all is not well.
At that morning session, the Inbound Report had the opportunity to speak with Janaina Maria, Florida manager for CVC, Brazil’s largest tour operator and travel agency and Clovis Casemiro, a São Paulo-based operator. Both acknowledged that the nation’s economy is in bad shape, but held to the position that the Brazilians who want to travel—i.e., well-to-do people in the country’s A and B social classes—would travel regardless of price. Other delegates from the country did not agree, believing that there would be a decline next year in the number of those in the C class (or middle class), especially among those who had risen from the D and E classes during the past decade.
From the time of La Cita 2014 to La Cita 2015, the Brazilian real sunk from 44 cents vs. the U.S. dollar to 26 cents vs. the U.S. dollar—a decline of 41 percent. This alone, another Brazilian told us, was enough to make air fare alone too much for, say, a family of four to consider a vacation in the USA. Another sign that the trade in Brazil is acknowledging the impact came just days before La Cita began when the Carlyle Group—the global venture capital firm based in Washington, D.C. which acquired CVC in 2010—announced that it had acquired two travel companies in bordering Peru: Nuevo Mundo Viajes and Condor Travel. CVC will merge the two into a regional tourism company and make it the largest travel company in the country. Nuevo Mundo is the chief outbound tour operator in Peru and Condor Travel is a prominent inbound tour operator in the country. The acquisition gives CVC established partners and, for Carlyle, diversifies and expands its holdings in South America beyond Brazil.
One did not have to walk very far through aisles at the compact La Cita trade show to find someone representing a shopping mall or a DMO whose attractions include shopping malls to find out that the numbers of big-spending Brazilian shoppers has declined. We already knew the outlook on this issue for South Florida. At ipw three months beforehand in Orlando, Brenda Lounsberry, marketing director for the upscale Mall at the Millennia in Orlando, told us that the number of Brazilian traveler-shoppers was off from 2014. (Just in case such a decline might come, the mall had taken steps following the 2008-09 economic recession, to refocus attention on the 60 percent of the customer base that is local in order for tenants to hang on.)
Brazilian shoppers at the malls are extremely important to the region. Erick Garnica, director of international sales for the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB, explained to us that the average spend of a Brazilian visitor to Sawgrass Mills, the huge shopping mall in Fort Lauderdale, is $3,000. Obviously, mall tenants don’t want to lose such customers.
With all of the evidence pointing to conditions that would suggest a decline in travel from Brazil to the United States, there are no hard data to make the case, except for occasional statistical snapshot numbers on credit card purchases, travel spending and anecdotal accounts. Such data might be on the way finally, Ron Erdmann, NTTO deputy director said when the Inbound Report discussed the matter with him, as DHS has just made available data for the first three months of 2015. NTTO should have arrivals number shortly, he said, which should indicate whether or not the impact of the recession and the weak Brazilian real has statistical dimension, as January is a major travel month for Brazilians.
- Colombia Rising: Because more attention given to South American markets in the past several years has focused on the cratering of the Venezuelan market and the weakening of the Argentine market, few in the travel trade have given much notice to the markedly improved conditions for outbound travel from Colombia. Everything we heard at La Cita reaffirmed what we wrote in the final Inbound Report for 2014. Our outlook for Colombia took note of the new-found political stability in the nation after the powerful guerrilla organization FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) declared a unilateral cease fire in its conflict with the government—a cease fire that has held throughout 2015.
The Inbound Report said then, “Its growth in visitor numbers, then, should come as no surprise. Among South American points of departure, it is geographically nearest to many U.S. destinations. Its best known city, Cartagena, is about as close to Miami (1,100 miles) as is New York City. No other South American gateway city is as close. And air service has expanded considerably. Colombia’s Avianca airlines has recently increased flights from different points in the country (it began service last summer from the capital city of Colombia’s Risaralda state to NYC), and the new low-cost carrier VivaColombia, which is part of the Panama-based Grupa Viva, is beginning service to the U.S.”
Luis Hernando Beltrán, general manager of the Bogotá-based operator, Altair Viajes, agreed. He added, though, that the outlook would be even better were it not for the strength of the U.S. dollar vs. the Colombian peso, which has fallen in value by more than a third, year-over-year. But he was optimistic, as the travel-ready middle class in Colombia, which has a total population of more than 48 million, has grown and his clients, already familiar with destinations such as Florida, Las Vegas, California and New York, are testing new places—he specifically mentioned Boston in this regard. He also noted that Copa Airlines, which serves has extensive connections through its Panama City hub—it is less than 300 miles from Cartagena—to numerous North American destinations. And recently, the U.S. State Department extended the validity of tourist visas to the U.S. from five years to 10 years.
- A Waiver on Visa Handling Criticism: Gone were the complaints, the outpouring of frustration and a low-level tone of hostility that one found three years ago at any travel industry event at which a U.S. State Department official showed up to discuss U.S. visa policy. But now that a Obama Administration executive order issued in 2012 has been fully implemented, the number of visa processing officers has more than doubled in some places in South America (and in China) reducing the wait times for a visas application interview from months to days.
Explaining the process—rather than having to defend it, as was the case in the past—was Mike Ritchie, post liaison and policy advisor, Visa Office, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. State Department. A mid-career State Department professional, Ritchie has served tours of duty in both Colombia and Argentina, and demonstrated his knowledge of cultural and political terrain of his audience that packed a conference room at 8 a.m. (the size of the audience might also have had something to do with the free breakfast) to see and hear his presentation.
The number one question on the minds of most of those in the room was “Why are visa applications rejected?” Mostly, it has to do with why a person wants to go the U.S., and then the visa officer wants to make sure that the individual has the resources to make it back to his or her home country and will not overstay the time limit of the visa. “Tell us what you’re going to do in the United States,” said Ritchie, who noted that he has conducted about 80,000 visa interviews in his career, adding, “In the vast majority of the cases, our answer is yes. (So) … tell your clients, ‘just be honest.’”
Much of Ritchie’s presentation boiled down to points or answers that were numbers. Here is a sample selection from those numbers:
—90 percent: The number of U.S. visa applicants who can get an interview with a consular or embassy office within three weeks.
—10 years: the period for which visas issued in almost all Latin American countries are valid (Colombia was the latest to have the period of validity extended from 5 to 10 years).
—85 percent: worldwide, the number of visa applications the State Department approves.
—Zero: the amount of time an applicant has to wait to re-apply if he or she has been rejected.
—57,500: the number of visas granted worldwide to visit the U.S. each working day.
—Two to three months: the period of a time a visa interview officer is trained in the special language of the process (both in the U.S. and in-country) and on-the-job training before conducting interviews on a solo basis.
Ritchie artfully avoided a direct answer when asked about what it will take for a nation to be a part of Visa Waiver Program (a hot political issue in both the U.S. and Brazil, where the travel and tourism industry in both nations are vigorously supporting Brazil’s inclusion in the program, which now includes 38 countries) by explaining that the latest entrant in the program, Chile, had to satisfy numerous conditions before it was approved. “A country has to have the infrastructure for collecting the necessary security data” before it can be considered for the program, he explained.
- La Cita Finding out What Works, What Doesn’t: Gone from its first event in Fort Lauderdale two years ago were the series of small seminars and educational sessions; the dependence on on-site pairing of suppliers and buyers; and the down time used up by shuttle transportation, waiting for the shuttle or walking from the hotel to convention center. This year, buyers and suppliers had a pre-scheduling platform that enabled them to schedule appointments with just about everyone—even journalists; and the meeting spaces that founder Rick Still would prefer to call “offices” are now referred to by everyone as booths
Everything—registration, business meetings, meals and social functions—was staged or launched from one location: the host hotel, the Boca Raton Resort and Club. And all the delegates were there too. Networking and networking time was available on the exhibit floor, on the way to and from the event, in the hotel lobby, in the elevator and at the one luncheon on Thursday. Set for 300 attendees, the luncheon attracted so many delegates, friends and guests that another 10-seat table had to be set up. At larger shows, many delegates sometimes skip the luncheon to grab a cheap sandwich in a convention center or offsite. (Of course, the popularity of the buffet-style luncheon might have had something to do with the $21 it costs for a burger and $10 it costs for a small carafe of coffee in the hotel restaurant, as well as the absence of any nearby, offsite fast food joints.)
The Inbound Report found several delegates who did the same as we did—passed over the 2014 La Cita last year in Miami to see how it would shape up this year—and found the show’s mechanics this year were more to their liking. The show’s three languages (English, Portuguese and Spanish) presented no organic problems for anyone. While most materials and announcements were in English, there were more than enough bilingual and multilingual delegates in the conference center that one needed only to look side to side for an ad hoc translator if that was necessary, which was not often.
It was likely because of the proximity of everything and everyone that the comfort level was high. Nearly every delegate in attendance had been at ipw three months ago, and nearly everyone had some sort of comment on how the scale of ipw—while it creates economies made possible by its scale—made it extraordinarily difficult to get in touch with someone outside the exhibit hall. “You needed a GPS device to find someone else at Disney,” joked one delegate.
Also, although not everyone genuinely knew everyone else, the degrees of separation between one delegate and another were low in number. One operator told us that there was no need for awkward ice-breaker conversations—all one had to do if you didn’t know someone was to ask: “How do you know Rick?” It’s still Rick Still’s show. Or, more appropriately, it’s the show of Rick and family.
Still told us that his son Matt and daughter Heather “really ran things” this year. Now 68, he expects that his son and daughter will continue the show in the future. (Next year, it’s back to Miami.) Matt’s title was director of operations. Heather, meanwhile, was able to conduct business with her seven-month-old son, Josiah, attached to her via an over-the-shoulder child carrier. And then there were Still’s wife, Ginger, sisters-in-law and other assorted relatives.
When Matt discussed the show, he said the aim was to increase the tour operator presence by another 30-35 percent next year, and keep the supplier numbers closer to what they were this year. According to our calculations, the ratio of buyer to suppler is better than 1:2.
Unofficial Count of La Cita de las Americas Attendees†
|Booths||126 (10 doubles)|
† Tallied on-site
* This figure included those who staffed the booths occupied by U.S. government agencies
** Reps, journalists and publishers, individual contractors
Number of Booths—126 (10 doubles)
Top Buyer Markets: Brazil, 23 buyers; Argentina and Panama, 6 each; and Colombia, 5