Looking ahead into 2020 and beyond through the IPW lens: With their sheer numbers, international tour operators, receptive tour operators and international journalists who attend IPW make it the most important marketing and information-sharing event on the annual calendar of the U.S. inbound tourism industry.
With the above as preface and based on our own random and admittedly unscientific conversations with people from the industry during IPW, INBOUND can report that the consensus seems to be that, for 2020 and the near-term, the outlook is –to deploy that most familiar of clichés, one that is “cautiously optimistic.”
During our conversations on and off the exhibit floor (the more gossip-y items are below) last week at IPW 2019 in Anaheim, California, would have rated an unqualified “optimistic” were it not for several key factors:
- For the first time ever, IPW took place during a live, real-time trade war that continues as we write this. For several days, there was the threat by the U.S. of new trade tariffs on Mexican goods, and the prospect that a new United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement might not secure approval from the three governments that made the treaty. And right in the middle of IPW business appointments, on Tuesday, the Chinese government warned Chinese companies doing business—this included the tourism sector—in the United States that they could face harassment from U.S. law enforcement agencies. This followed by a day a warning to Chinese students and academics about the risks involved in studying in the United States. A journalist did not have to look far to find a skittish U.S. travel supplier.
- There is continued resentment of, and hostility directed at, U.S. President Donald Trump—both personal as well as that related to his policies on immigration and trade. This was reflected during a Tuesday news conference featuring U.S. Travel’s president and CEO, Roger Dow, who is exceptionally smooth and deft at handling difficult questions from journalists. But, just after Dow finished a video clip of Trump taken from his State of the Union address last February 6, in which he made a broadly positive statement about international tourism and Dow said, “the point is … that there is hope,” there was a wave of derisive laughter in the room where the news conference was held.
- There was talk of unevenness and “soft spots” in continental Europe as one tour operator described it to us—especially in Germany, where the two industry giants, TUI and Thomas Cook Germany, are having terrible years overall and outbound traffic to the USA did not increase at all in 2018 vs. 2017. As well, the full-year arrivals data from the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO) came out, and they showed a one percent, year-on-year decline for German travel to the U.S. Also, as a receptive operator who works the market explained it to us, German travelers—slow to migrate to OTAs and other non-traditional channels of distribution—have begun to shift to using OTAs for their travel. These individuals are 3.5-star travelers, who comprise the base of consumers who buy the kind of product offered by TUI and Thomas Cook to its partners.
- In addition to other matters related to China, one heard expressions of concern over the large number of visa applications for travel to the USA that are being rejected in China—up to 40 percent, according to some instances. Not only are the prospective travelers who could not get a visa affected, so were the passengers who were part of a series that that had a package cancelled because an operator could not get enough visa-approved travelers in time to fill a bus.
And, as one source suggested, it is not a problem that will go away quickly because there are going to be millions more of new, first-time, long-haul entering the market for decades—travelers who have never gone through the process of securing a passport or a visa in order to travel. So, the problem won’t go away simply by hiring more visa application adjudicators. One receptive told us that tourism officials and businesses in China should do a better job at educating prospective Chinese travelers to the United States about the visa process.
And now, for Some More or Less Gossip-y Items:
—Far and away, the biggest surprise, and a welcome one at that, was the California Plaza close to and directly in front of the Anaheim Convention Center. A sort of pop-up trade show of its own, the Plaza had some 15 exhibit stations from different California destinations and suppliers that featured a wide range of hors d’oeuvres, finger food, tchotchkes and sufficient alcohol to fuel (or relax) the hundreds of delegates who flowed through the site on their way to an evening event or to the convention center. Nearly everyone we spoke to expressed the hope that a similar feature is part of IPW 2020 next year in Las Vegas.
—There were also rave reviews for this year’s Tuesday luncheon show co-sponsored by New York City & Company and Broadway Inbound. This year’s production featured performances from several Disney-themed works, including “Lion King,” “Frozen” and “Aladdin.” One heard the word “seamless” used to describe the show. Asked about this, Bob Hoffman, a lifelong habitué of Broadway and vice president Broadway Inbound at The Shubert Organization, said that it probably had something to do with the fact that, this year, there was a single producer for the whole show—rather than producers for single segments of the show.
—Making their 42nd consecutive appearance at IPW were Mike Gallagher, co-founder and co-chairman of CityPASS; and his friend and colleague, Noel Irwin Hentschel, chairman and CEO of AmericanTours International. Both attended the first of their 42 IPWs in 1978 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gallagher, whose CityPASS now has 15 destinations that use its multiple attraction-admission package, told us that the company’s goal is a new destination each year.
—The pithiest answer to a question: When INBOUND asked one Argentine tour operator if the situation in Argentina was improving, he said simply, “No.” That’s it.
—Another long-time IPW attendee, Guillermo Alcorta, whose first was in 1985 in Los Angeles, is president of PANROTAS, the multimedia company that publishes Brazil’s most widely read trade journal, operates several websites, and publishes source books and stages conferences, and has just turned 80 years old. Alcorta, whose latest conference acquisition was held the week before IPW, told INBOUND that he plans to keep going and then to retire when he turns 100. Fit and trim—he always appears in an immaculately tailored suit—he means it.
—Misha Tours, a one-person company in San Diego—it is owned and operated by Misha Jovanovic, a Serbian émigré to the U.S. who is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Serbian/Croatian—first attended IPW in 1989 and has been back every year since.