Christopher Rodrigues surveyed the ballroom filled with travel industry executives. "We don't need Tourism Week," he said. "We need No-Tourism Week."
An odd thing for anyone in the industry to say, but particularly odd coming from Rodrigues, who is chairman of VisitBritain.
I have known Chris for almost a decade and always find his perspective to be singular and insightful. Before being named to his position four years ago, he was CEO of Visa International, and his understanding of finance and his blend of public and private experience often result in unexpected viewpoints.
He made his comment about No-Tourism Week earlier this month while we were having lunch at the World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit in Las Vegas. That morning, he had moderated a session titled "New Global Mindset," a future-forward discussion with the likes of Travelport CEO Jeff Clarke and Hertz Chairman Mark Frissora. It was sandwiched between addresses by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama.
Rodrigues and I were talking about the role of government in planning, developing, promoting and facilitating travel when he came out with the comment about "No-Tourism Week."
"Remember the foot-and-mouth disease scare around 10 years ago?" he asked. "It affected tourism to Great Britain deeply, and caused Britain and its politicians to see what the country would look like without British tourism.
"During Tourism Week, we try to get the government to appreciate the importance of travel and tourism. We show statistics and data, but all that talk isn't as effective as what we saw during foot-and-mouth. When there's no tourism, all the dark spots appear. Suddenly, people who don't think of themselves as being in tourism but who serve the industry -- guys in the air conditioning business, plumbers, people supplying food and beverage -- everyone suddenly says, 'Whoa!'"
The travel industry often seems downright fragile to its practitioners. We're at the mercy of every economic blip, health threat or earthquake, exploited by local taxing bodies and blown off course by bad weather. But Rodrigues believes our resilience in the face of adversity works against our arguments that we need government support.
"We get whacked, but the steamroller keeps on going," he said. "Should we be surprised that this industry gets taxed so heavily? Even when they tax it, people still travel. We're our own worst enemy. We're strong, resilient, and for the most part extraordinarily effective. We should never expect sympathy."
Rodrigues went further, questioning whether we should even want governments to take too strong an interest in travel and tourism. "Be careful what you ask for," he warned.
I reminded him that during his session that morning, Shanzhong Zhu, vice chairman of the China National Tourism Administration, had presented China's impressive plans for growth, which included the building of new airports and other supportive infrastructure. Afterward, Rodrigues publicly asked Shanzhong for a copy of the plans "to personally put in the hands of our prime minister." That sounded to me as if he felt government should play a strong role in tourism development. Would he really deliver the plans to Prime Minister Cameron?
"I absolutely will," he said. "We have to remember, however, that the places we say we admire [for their support of tourism] tend to be directed economies. How much flexibility do you think there is to step outside the tracks set down by the Chinese government? Not much. You'd probably rather do business in this country.
"Nonetheless, they're engaged in a way that's very deep. When they get engaged, they get engaged. What we want is Nirvana, the best of both worlds: an engaged government that is laissez-faire except for the areas where we want them engaged."
Much of the discussion at the summit focused on the intersection of public policy and the travel industry, and as we finished lunch, Rodrigues emphasized that he wasn't suggesting we ignore the role that governments can and do play.
"You need to be aware of how government works," he said. "The challenge always is, how do you get a voice at the table to move the industry forward? But even then, we need to be very careful about what we ask for. The worst things that could happen are the unintended consequences of the government doing what we ask."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.