My favorite running gag on the radio program "A Prairie Home Companion" is the public service announcements produced by the fictitious Ketchup Council extolling the virtues of that condiment ("Ketchup, for the good times.")

In real life, of course, there's the Beef Board, the Ad Council, the National Pork Producers Council, the Florida Citrus Growers and myriad other collections of businesspeople who join together to promote their corner of commerce.

These groups focus primarily on public policy -- that is, they're lobbying organizations -- but each has also made an impression on the American public through memorable public relations campaigns like "A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine" and "Pork, the other white meat."

I've lately been wondering: Do we need a Travel Council?

We have associations, roundtables, organizations and, yes, even a few groups with council at the end of their name. But by and large, each works primarily for only a segment of the travel industry.

These organizations have gotten much better at working together when their interests align. Thanks to the newly energized Travel Industry Association and its lobbying partners, the Travel Business Roundtable and the World Travel and Tourism Council, our previously fragmented industry has become more disciplined, speaking with one voice in political arenas.

Some real progress has been made, demonstrated most notably when lobbying efforts brought some rationality to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. In the end, the industry's victory, like most political victories, was only partial. There's still much that's untidy about that policy.

The confusing details of the WHTI in its final form left many stakeholders in the industry anxious, and rightfully so. There's more fine print about where, how and when than the traveling consumer would want to sort through. And the industry is responding to the illogical aspects of the initiative with fragmented, special-interest efforts to minimize its anticipated negative effects.

For instance, the U.S. Virgin Islands launched a "No passport required" campaign, with the assistance of several prominent tour operators. SuperClubs and Spirit Vacations are running a promotion offering a rebate equivalent to the cost of a passport application or renewal. Marriott and Renaissance are offering a similar program for their Mexican and Caribbean resorts.

Cruise lines are fretting over scenarios for potential passport problems. Though no passport is needed by U.S. citizens returning by sea to a U.S. port, what if a passenger needs to be repatriated in the middle of the cruise and flown back to the U.S. from a foreign port?

Tour operators offering charters to Mexico on thin margins are worried that they may end up with too many empty seats after denying boarding to those showing up for departure without a passport.

Here is where a Travel Council could send out a very simple, very straightforward marketing message to neutralize all the confusing details and footnotes in the WHTI. And that message is: Americans, why delay? Get your passport today.

A concerted industry campaign that simply says (in some clever, engaging and elegant fashion), "GET A PASSPORT!" would negate the need to try to convey the complicated WHTI details and, as a bonus, have the long-term benefit of creating a nation ready to go anywhere. Such a promotion could lift the entire industry.

Of course, no one really needs to create a special organization for this or similar as-needed messages. Existing associations, roundtables, organizations and councils can accomplish the same thing. All that's needed is a Leadership Committee, composed of association leaders, that has the necessary support and funding to create the Western Hemisphere Passport Initiative.


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