Arnie WeissmannIt gives me great pleasure to announce the retirement of Rodney Dangerfield as the unofficial mascot of the travel industry.

Seven years ago, the self-deprecating comic's "I don't get no respect" line was apt. Consider: In 2005, U.S. Travel's CEO Roger Dow and Loews Hotel Chairman Jonathan Tisch, then president of the Business Travel Roundtable, had appointments to visit seven U.S. senators to discuss industry initiatives. But Tisch, who is an active contributor to political campaigns, fell ill, and couldn't join Dow. Upon hearing that news, six of the seven senators canceled their appointments.

The then-$600 billion industry found doors slammed in the face of its top representative.

Dow subsequently narrowed U.S. Travel's mission to focus on advocacy. In the succeeding years, he worked closely with Geoff Freeman, now executive vice president and COO, to build a credible lobbying voice in Congress and, equally important, to patiently build relationships with key figures within the Obama administration.

It's instructive to remember that President Obama did not seem likely to become the first president in memory to make tourism and travel a strategic focus.

Early in his tenure, he almost single-handedly shut down the meetings industry by criticizing what he considered to be lavish events held by companies receiving government bailout money.

And just when Las Vegas was hurting most, he singled it out as a destination where taxpayer money should not be spent.

If you had told me then that this was the beginning of a process that would enhance the stature of the industry in the eyes of the president, and the president in the eyes of the industry, I would not have believed it possible.

But Dow, who could not get his foot in the door to make the case before a handful of potentially friendly senators four years earlier, led a group of industry leaders into the White House in 2009 and explained that the underlying issue at stake was jobs.

If corporate America is shamed into not spending money on meetings, he said, the result would be that maids, bellmen and waiters would suffer in great numbers.

A seed was planted. Less than two years later, the executive branch fully appreciated the enormous numbers of dollars and jobs the travel industry represents, and earlier this year, President Obama issued an executive order that has already had a multibillion-dollar effect on inbound travel and the economy (see report, "White House touts progress on visa processing initiatives"). 

In issuing the order, the president said, "We are going to do everything we can to make sure that we're continuing to boost tourism for decades to come."

Valerie Jarrett, one of president's top advisers, chimed in, saying, "The travel industry is a model" for how to influence opinion in Washington.

And in Congress, U.S. Travel celebrated a key victory in passing the Travel Promotion Act, which uses arrival-tax revenue and industry contributions to pay for promotions overseas.

Ironically, the economic downturn played a role in the rising influence of travel. As Dow has repeatedly pointed out, tourism jobs can't be outsourced.
But none of this would have occurred were it not for an insightful approach that guided Dow and Freeman.

To quote a recent speech by Freeman: "Rather than breaking down our issues into parochial concerns -- hotel issues, destination issues or rental car issues -- [we] presented a single, united industry, more powerful than its components. ... Rather than asking government for a handout or to [stop] bad ideas, [we] stepped forward with solutions for complex problems, [including] the massive decline in overseas travel to the United States. ... At every stage, we stressed the national importance of travel ... its contribution to economic growth and job creation and its ability to generate deficit-reducing tax revenues."

Farewell, Rodney. May you never find any reason to come out of retirement.

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

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