Americans were recently asked to rank U.S. enterprises, and the airlines came in dead last, said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of public affairs for U.S. Travel. Behind personal injury lawyers. Behind health insurance companies. Behind cable TV companies. Behind the federal government.
Freeman, speaking at the Travel Weekly Las Vegas Leadership Forum, noted that this is not an airline problem. This is a travel industry problem.
If we were to look at a vacation as a consumer looks at it, he said, we would not see a booking experience, followed by an airline experience, followed by a car rental experience, followed by a hotel or tour or cruise experience. We would see it as an interconnected product, beginning the moment we began researching a trip and ending when we put our suitcases down inside our front door.
And if anything goes wrong at any point, it would influence how we judge the entire experience.
On the other hand, each segment of the industry focuses only on delivering its component well. What can hoteliers do about poor airline service or their guest being hassled by the Transportation Security Administration?
Freeman has identified the disparity between the compartmentalized way that the industry looks at travel and how a consumer looks at travel as a major threat to our long-term growth.
Judging by the examples he used, aviation is the weakest link. Five of the 10 busiest airports in the world are in the U.S., and not a single one is ranked among the 20 friendliest airports worldwide. Civil engineers recently gave U.S. airports a grade of D. Two-thirds of travelers said they would travel more frequently if the TSA were friendlier (and just as effective).
Complicating the issue is the rise in aggressive marketing of travel alternatives.
Freeman played a commercial showing a man burning his suitcases and a woman pushing her car down an embankment into a river as the voiceover asked, "Sick of traveling?" It was produced by a website called GoToMeeting.com, which offers a virtual meeting tool. Its tagline at the end of the commercial was "Do more and travel less," which Freeman characterized as "an anti-travel slogan that works."
"Society expects things to become more convenient," he said. "And everything is -- except what we specialize in."
There are substitutes on the leisure side, as well, he pointed out. Online experiences, video games, additional ways to communicate and "staycations" are alternatives to travel.
U.S. Travel estimates that the combination of hassle and substitutes leads consumers to avoid 41 million trips a year, at a cost to the industry of $26.5 billion.
Despite these rather large numbers, Freeman said, the industry isn't really willing to confront this reality. Instead we say, "The airlines are our friends. This is their issue. We can't control how the TSA acts."
Freeman hopes these threats will force us to think and act differently and make us better. We have, he said, advantages other industries covet.
"Everyone in Washington knows our brands; we don't have to explain what we do," Freeman said. "We are omnipresent, we are in every corner of this country. Employees are passionate about this industry."
He added: "I've worked in the pharmaceutical, health insurance and tobacco industries. Those people are not proud to work in those industries."
Yet we seldom come together to combat our biggest threats, he said, adding, "We have to act like a big industry and have a big agenda."
In times of crisis -- when meetings were under attack in early 2009, for example -- U.S. Travel has been a catalyst and a voice for the industry. It has also found some traction in unifying the industry around specific issues, such as visa policies that discourage people from traveling to the U.S.
Freeman's plea in Las Vegas was an articulate cry to an industry to mature and respond to long-term, systemic issues that are broad, complex and real.
I will add that, as a lobbying presence, U.S. Travel has come a very long way in a relatively short time, thanks in large measure to Freeman and the organization's CEO, Roger Dow.
The threats Freeman identified are credible, and they won't go away by themselves.
We now have a choice. We can rally behind Freeman's call to action or sit back and watch as consumers embrace a different call to action: "Do more and travel less."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.