Arnie WeissmannCANCUN -- It was an odd feeling to sit in the AAA Five-Diamond Le Blanc Spa & Resort here and listen to packagers, hoteliers and travel agents discuss the struggles Mexico is undergoing as it struggles to sell itself to vacationers.

Le Blanc is one of several impressive resorts on stunning beaches in the area. It has every amenity a leisure traveler could want, plus some that most couldn't imagine. And it's one of dozens in Mexico at which any sane person would be delighted to spend some downtime.

However, the focus last week at Le Blanc could not have been more serious. Forty industry stakeholders had been invited by the Mexico Tourism Board to attend a summit focused on strategies to help put Mexico tourism back on track.

Mexico arrivals from the U.S. have dipped 6.7% in the first five months of this year, with no indication that the drug cartel-related violence that caused the drop will end in the immediate future. (View Travel Weekly's map explaining the U.S. State Department's recent warning.) 

Attendees have a lot of skin in the game. The presidents of Apple Vacations, Classic Vacations, Funjet Vacations, Gogo Worldwide Vacations, MLT Vacations, Pleasant Holidays and Travel Impressions were all in attendance.

Also onboard were senior representatives from AAA, Amex, Ensemble, the Leisure Travel Alliance, Nexion, Signature, Travel Leaders, Travelsavers and Virtuoso. Leadership from ASTA, the U.S Tour Operators Association and the Outside Sales Support Network was present, as well.

The group that gathered in the room accounted for 80% of leisure sales to Mexico, observed Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, COO of the country's tourism board.

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg and I were also invited to moderate sessions that both examined issues and explored potential solutions.

That morning, we had heard Lopez-Negrete and the tourism board's chief marketing officer, Gerardo Llanes, detail what Mexico was doing in public affairs, public relations and advertising: It was engaging with governments to ensure that warnings are accurate.

A consumer ad campaign focuses on unique experiential opportunities. A trade blitz focuses on agent education.

There seemed little doubt that Mexico's team was working hard and smart, yet the visitor numbers keep going down while competitive leisure destinations have been, in aggregate, significantly up. Mexico is missing out on a general recovery for sun-and-sand leisure travel.

The discussion I moderated took many interesting twists and turns, but a few bright spots surfaced.

Steve Gorga, CEO of Travel Impressions, said he was on track to sell more Mexico this year than ever before. Both he and Pleasant Holidays CEO Jack Richards reported strong destination wedding and honeymoon sales to Mexico.

There was general agreement that any strategy or tactic adopted should aim to grow business for all rather than shift market share from other destinations.

Travel Leaders' chief marketing officer, Stephen McGillivray, suggested that agents should receive financial incentives for increasing sales to Mexico, but the wholesalers present said there wasn't enough margin in the business for them to fund that.

Llanes said he would study possible incentives, though it was noted that even a $20-per-head bonus would deplete the tourism board's significant war chest without producing a significant percentage rise in visitor numbers.

There was discussion of best practices to respond to clients who are fearful to travel here. The consensus that emerged was that a confident agent, armed with facts, could allay fears. But there was also acknowledgement that it was easy for an agent to simply book a client to another sun-and-fun destination.

The group felt that the ad messaging was a fine long-term position, but it would not stop numbers from sliding in the short term. Any closer-in remedy would likely require immediate tactical responses.

Consensus formed around two proposals: to create ads with on-the-scene testimonials from ordinary people saying, essentially, "I'm on vacation in Mexico right now and I'm having a great time," and the creation of a central repository for video and other materials that agents and packagers could tap to support Mexico.

What truly impressed me about the summit was the degree to which fierce competitors came together in a common cause. No one in the room needs to make an extra effort to support Mexico. Any one of them could take the path of least resistance when a traveler voices concern and just sell a different destination.

But this high-powered group cleared its collective calendars to come together and focus their considerable talents to support Mexico. It remains the No. 1 foreign destination for U.S. travelers for a good reason: Far more than a typical "sun-and-fun" destination, it offers an outstanding variety of attractions, exceptionally high service standards, impressive properties, diverse cultural offerings, and it traditionally represents unusual value.

No one wants to see it fade from the travel landscape.

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


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