By about the fourth time he led a public chant during IPW 2017 in Washington, D.C.—“Brand USA is here to say”—it was clear that Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, meant it: US Travel and the U.S. travel and tourism industry are determined to prevent the implementation of budget plans by the Trump Administration that call for the elimination of Brand USA, the private-public sector organization that promotes the Visit USA travel product abroad.
He was especially emphatic in making the point during a Tuesday morning press conference at IPW during which he was peppered with questions by journalists who were critical of the impact of Trump on the inbound tourism industry and dubious about the industry’s prospects for a healthy future under him.
After beginning with a reference to new data from U.S. Travel’s Travel Trends Index showing that travel to the USA was actually up by one percent in April 2017 (vs. April 2016), Dow seemed intent on speaking about matters other than the “Trump effect,” such as the impact of the strong U.S. dollar on travel to the USA; problems with visa rules reciprocity with Europe; and the need for airport infrastructure improvement in the United States
But, as journalists kept sticking to questions that focused on President Trump, the president and CEO of US Travel stressed that he and his organization were determined to work with the White House to advance the industry’s agenda, including the preservation of Brand USA. He earned applause from the more than 250 journalists by the end of the news conference.
Dow has usually been reticent in discussing US Travel’s productive record in lobbying the U.S. Congress and official Washington, choosing to allow others to take credit, and leaving no fingerprints on his organization’s successful efforts, such as those that led to the passage of the Travel Promotion Act of 2010 and its reauthorization at the end of 2014. His assiduously bi-partisan approach to lobbying—US Travel’s PAC has distributed its contributions to both Democrats and Republicans and the legislation it supports has sponsors from both parties—has yielded good results for the industry.
The Long Game: The first question asked Dow was typical: “Have you accepted the fact that you have at least three and a half years of problems with the Trump Administration ahead of you?” asked the journalist.
“This is a long game,” Dow replied, noting that, as of the day of the press conference, the Trump Administration had been in office 149 days, while his full term runs 1,460 days. He pointed to President Barack Obama’s first month in office in February 2009, when he sparked furor in the travel and tourism industry while in the midst of remarks on the need to economize in the midst of an economic recession not to go to Las Vegas. (Obama said, “You don’t go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage. You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices.”)
With US Travel working through back channels, Obama then agreed to meet face-to-face in March 2009 at the White House with Dow and a dozen industry leaders. It was the first time in US Travel’s history (it was founded in 1941) that a sitting President had met in the White House with travel and tourism industry leaders. Dow told reporters that Obama, who eventually met three times in the White House with industry leaders during his tenure in office, went on to be “one of our best presidents for travel and tourism”
Trump? “He’s a hotelier … He understands this.” In explaining his organization’s approach to the Trump, Dow said of Trump, “He’s a hotelier. He should understand this. He does understand this.”
US travel has actually held off on trying to meet with Trump in person, Dow said, explaining, “We’ve actually put off getting together with him face-to-face. There are so many things happening.” Industry leaders are making contact with White House officials, but will wait before trying to arrange a meeting with the President.
After reminding the press conference of the positive points he had stressed in his presentation, Dow seemed to close the dialogue with reporters over Trump with this: “We are concerned about the rhetoric. We’re going to get to him and we are going to work with him. He’s a businessman. He’s smart. And we’ll help bring him around.”
Lindsay Sutton, an award-winning travel writer from the UK known for his barbed questions at IPW press conferences, seemed to capture the mood of most of the journalists when he commented, as the session came to an end: “We know that visitors have a great admiration for what America stands for—its openness, immigration, its positiveness—the fact that you can make it,” he said. “People love that energy and ‘can do.’ I applaud you for getting back to that point. It’s unusual for me to sit down without a stinging, critical remark.” And others applauded as well.
It was clear that US Travel had already had some impact on the Administration’s thinking. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who delivered keynote remarks to the IPW opening luncheon on the day before, sprinkled his speech with familiar phrases praising the industry’s work and even used the current buzz expression of Brand USA/US Travel: “But let me be clear: America is open for business. America is open for travel. America is open for international travelers.”