Last week, at a meeting of the
Receptive Services Association of America, Jeffrey Stewart was
reading my mind and speaking it out loud -- into a microphone, no
less -- when he said, "Message matters, but messengers matter, as
Stewart, chief of
staff and counselor to Loews Hotels CEO Jon Tisch, was on a panel
that followed a keynote presentation by Geoff Freeman, executive
director of the Discover America Partnership, about the
partnership's ambitious agenda to influence public policy on behalf
of the travel industry.
identified three problems that the country faces and that he
believes would benefit from a revision of travel-related
The first problem
is that inbound travel to the U.S. has declined.
The second is
that America's image has deteriorated.
The third is that
foreign support for the war on terror has slipped.
To illustrate the
first problem, the decline in inbound tourism, Freeman graphically
demonstrated how the U.S. was losing global market share and also
how investment in tourism paid handsome dividends for the economy.
For the second, he recounted a credible study that the partnership
had commissioned, showing among other things that foreigners feared
immigration officers more than they feared terrorism.
Of the third
concern, that foreign support for the war on terror has slipped, he
said, "I'm not saying this is scientific, but it appears that image
matters to foreign support for the war on terror. Where image
declines, so does support."
scientific. Perhaps even a bit of sophistry. It strikes me that
aspects of the war on terror itself (overly restrictive immigration
policy, xenophobia, the war in Iraq) have contributed both to the
erosion of America's image and decline in support for the war on
terror. There's a linkage between the war on terror and America's
image, but it may not be the relationship Freeman
Freeman said that
among the initiatives the partnership had undertaken to move its
agenda forward was hiring Tom Ridge, former secretary of the
Department of Homeland Security, as a consultant and
Tom Ridge? The
architect of the very immigration policies that Freeman had just
said were perceived as "the world's worst entry
I like Freeman, and
I agree with the partnership's goals for policy change 100%. I
understand that it helps any potential legislation these days to be
positioned as helping in the war on terror. But I worry about the
hiring of Ridge, particularly if he's lobbying on behalf of travel
to a Congress that's notably unsympathetic to officials so strongly
linked to the policies of the present administration.
Freeman had also
said that he had encouraged officials in the Departments of State
and Homeland Security to counter negative foreign perceptions of
our immigration process by pitching the news media stories that
It was while
addressing this subject -- that the government can effectively
correct negative perceptions about the entry process -- that
Stewart, on a panel following the speech, asserted, "Message
matters, but messengers matter, as well."
He expressed doubts
that administration officials were the most credible voices to
reassure potential visitors.
When the panel
ended, I asked Stewart whether he would include Ridge in his
cautionary message about messengers mattering.
necessarily the guy to tell the world that everything's warm and
fuzzy," Stewart said. "But he can be effective with policymakers.
It'll take many individuals and approaches."
Tisch, is the most politically astute executive in the travel
industry, and I'll defer to the opinion of his counselor. Still,
I'm of two minds. I think Freeman's economic-based approach and the
study on travelers' perception of America are brilliant and
persuasive tools. I'm willing to take a wait-and-see position on
Ridge, and who knows? Freeman's version of the linkage between
America's image and the war on terror may actually find purchase in
But, while it's
true that it takes many individuals and approaches to pass
legislation, it should be noted that the political winds shifted
I hope Freeman is
keeping an eye on the weather vane.