Regions Hampton Roads

Travel executive says travel is the front door to economic development

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Print this page By Paula C. Squires
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Lots of people stopped by the state's Virginia is For Lovers exhibit at the tourism summit. Photo by Paula Squires

 

The U.S. travel industry is the country’s front door to economic development. More needs to be done to promote it and to encourage Americans to take their paid time off.

Those were the key themes shared by Roger Dow, the president and CEO of the U. S. Travel Association, to an industry crowd Monday at the VA1 Tourism Summit in Norfolk. The annual conference drew about 500 people from travel and related industries who are gathering for three days at Norfolk’s newest downtown hotel and conference center, Hilton Norfolk the Main.

The second day of the conference opened with music, pageantry, and a salute to the port city’s 100th-year anniversary as the world’s largest naval base.  Dow gave the keynote luncheon speech, noting that the travel industry provides 15 million American jobs and has a $2.1 trillion dollar impact on the nation’s economy.

The impact cuts across many sectors, including real estate, restaurant, agriculture, sports and retail enterprises. “Forty percent of all fine dining occasions in restaurants come because someone traveled there,” he noted.

“We need to do a better job of telling the story of how important we are,” Dow added, particularly at a time when international inbound travel to the U.S. is down by 2.8 percent. According to him, that translates into a loss of $7 billion for the economy and 40,000 jobs.

The head of the country’s largest travel advocacy group pointed out that the U. S. Travel Association works collaboratively with presidential administrations. “I’m trying to get the current administration to use this phrase: We’re closed to terrorists, but we’re open to business and everyone else.

Security is important,” he added. “Without security we have no travel. Just look what happened in Turkey and Egypt,” Dow said, referring to huge drops in travel in those countries following terrorism events.

Even with the drop in inbound international travel, however, the U.S. is doing better than it was during what Dow referred to as “the lost decade.” From 1995 to 2005, America lost 37 percent of its market share in international travel. While other countries were inviting visitors with major promotions, Dow said America made it difficult for people from some countries to get travel visas, and it didn’t invest enough in promotion.

Since then, the U.S. has boosted the number of visa waiver countries from 27 to 38. The program doesn’t waive the need for a visa, Dow explained. It provides a layered security program in cooperation with other countries that makes it easier for people to enter the U.S. for travel.

In addition, Dow’s group supports a program called Brand USA, a private, nonprofit destination marketing organization. “It levels the playing field,” because the program, which has has a $200 million marketing budget, helps states like Virginia that don’t have huge marketing budgets. “Not everyone has a mega budget like Las Vegas … So now you can be in the markets you want to be in, and you can say here’s what want we can offer in Virginia.”

The program spends money on promotions to attract international business and leisure travelers to all 50 states — not just the major gateway cities.

It’s one of the ways travel industry is fostering change, with “charting change” the theme of the conference.

Dow also told the audience about another new initiative. This one is designed to inspire more Americans to travel by taking their paid time off. In 2,000, research shows that Americans took an average of 20.2 days off a year. By 2016, that number had fallen to 16.2 days, or a loss of four days a year.   In Virginia, about 59 percent of employees were not taking all their paid time off, leaving 16 million unused days of vacation -- or a potential of $209 billion in travel spending -- on the table. “We were becoming a no vacation nation,” Dow said.

Companies need to recognize the importance of letting employees unplug and take vacation. In that vein, Dow told people to mark their calendars for a National Plan for Vacation Day that’s coming up on Jan. 30, 2018.  More than 500 organizations in all the states are banning together to sponsor the project.

Closer to home, the Virginia tourism industry is working with the Brand Center at Virginia Commonwealth University on a “Crush Fridays,” promotion. It’s designed to encourage employees to take all their vacation time off by taking off occasional Fridays for a long three-day weekend. 

During the conference, Norfolk did not waste an opportunity to promote itself to the tourism industry. Officials touted the city’s thriving arts scene and the upcoming 2018 Virginia International Tatoo, a musical event that will be held at Norfolk’s Scope arena in April 2018. It includes military bands, drill teams, and performers from the U.S. service branches and militaries around the world.


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