Arnie WeissmannThe month ended with three unrelated events that left observers wondering: What's next?

American Express, whose $29.2 billion Global Business Travel division ranks No. 2 on Travel Weekly's Power List, essentially turned over 50% of the division in a joint venture with Certares Investment Bank, pending a Certares investment of between $700 million and $1 billion.

Certares' CEO, Michael "Greg" O'Hara, is also co-chairman of Travel Leaders, a collection of agency groups whose brands --, Tzell, Protravel, Cruise Holidays and Results, among others -- comprise about one-third of all travel agencies.

So many questions. While the amount Certares says it will invest in the joint venture is not insignificant, AmEx could probably turn up $700 million to $1 billion by flipping over sofa cushions in the executive suite. Well, maybe not, but its 2012 net income was $4.48 billion on revenue of $31.58 billion, and in its most recent quarter it beat analysts' expectations, despite revenue being off somewhat.

So why did AmEx do it? The answer might be found between the lines of its official statement. The company wants to "create a great investment capacity for its travel division ..."

One would think that AmEx could afford to make all internal investments necessary to improve its business travel division without selling half of it, but the internal politics of very large companies like AmEx gives first dibs on internal investment budgets to the most profitable, highest-yielding divisions. And the business travel division would not be near the front of that line.

Yes, those T&E card swipes generated by the business travel group are important -- in fact, they're the primary justification for AmEx retaining a travel business, which could otherwise be viewed by regulators as having a tenuous relationship to banking. The beauty of the new JV is that the swipes will continue apace and could grow with an investment infusion from Certares -- all without AmEx having to invest another penny.

The biggest unanswered question is how Greg O'Hara, already involved in decisions that affect a third of all agencies, might leverage the two organizations he will co-lead.

For that answer, we must wait.

• • •  

The tragedy that unfolded in Nairobi's Westgate Mall last week was shocking in so many regards. Cold-blooded killers targeted innocents of every age and gender. Their brutality was unspeakable.

David Scowsill, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, was in Nairobi to address a hotel investment summit, and said, "There is ... speculation that this attack will affect tourism to Kenya. My message to you today is that it cannot."

By "cannot," he of course meant "must not," and he followed up with a financial argument demonstrating tourism's importance to the Kenyan economy and a logical argument that tourism is an effective tool against terrorism.

While I concur with his sentiments, sadly the reality is that Kenya will likely go through a period in which tourism will be down. 

• • •  

The question of "what next" for Kenya might have been at least partially revealed in an event sponsored by Mexico, which is no stranger to episodes of violence that depressed travel throughout the country.

The event, which highlighted Mexico's new ad slogan, "Live It to Believe It," was also a celebration of the return of tourists to the country following years of reduced visitor levels in reaction to violence perpetrated by narco-traffickers. Mexico's growth rate is currently outpacing global tourism growth (7.2% vs. 5.2%, through July) and inbound from the U.S. is even higher (8.4%).

One hopes Kenya will not require four years to recover, as Mexico did.

There was also acknowledgement that Acapulco, the country's iconic beach resort, was severely damaged by flooding due to a tropical storm.

At the event, I spoke with Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Eduardo Medina Mora, about the situation. Recalling hurricanes that devastated Cancun and the Riviera Maya, he responded with what could be called optimistic realism: "This could be a chance to refresh Acapulco which was, one has to admit, tired."

In the face of the horrors of Westgate, optimistic realism is a bit harder to conjure, but the ambassador's perspective is a good place to start: How can Kenya come out stronger in the end? That could be the goal that inspires Kenyans and restores visitors' confidence in a time of great confusion.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter. 


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