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 well."

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.

Freeman had identified three problems that the country faces and that he believes would benefit from a revision of travel-related policy:

  • 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."

    Right. Not 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 suggests.

    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 lobbyist.

    Tom Ridge? The architect of the very immigration policies that Freeman had just said were perceived as "the world's worst entry process"?

    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 tout improvements.

    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.

    "He's not 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."

    Stewart's boss, 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 Congress.

    But, while it's true that it takes many individuals and approaches to pass legislation, it should be noted that the political winds shifted last November.

    I hope Freeman is keeping an eye on the weather vane.

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