When the news came out of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Summit in Abu Dhabi last April that our industry was trending toward becoming the largest in the world, industry leaders were quick to point out how that recognition could translate into increasing political clout.
And indeed, governments, including our own, that had dismissed the largely fragmented travel and tourism industry as being either an economic lightweight or serving a somewhat trivial function have begun to pay more attention.
Both WTTC and the U.S. Travel Association have worked hard to ensure we'll be in a position to exploit our newfound status, and the way they did it informs both how clout is obtained and the unintended consequences of being perceived as powerful.
U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow's greatest accomplishment to date might have been getting travel and tourism recognized as an industry. He found the common interests among hospitality, tour, cruise, car rental, technology and aviation companies as well as meetings planners and leisure and corporate retailers, aligned them with the destinations where they do business and presented the sum as one job-producing, wealth-creating, export-raising behemoth.
It's surprising that it didn't happen until a few years into the 21st century. Politically speaking, we were late to the table, and as Dow is fond of saying, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu. The timing of our long-awaited coalescence as an industry and its almost immediate ascendancy to No. 1 is in some ways stunning. And we're finding that we might not be fully prepared.
Recognition of power and importance is not confined to governmental influence. Being viewed as the largest industry in the world magnifies the scrutiny of the industry's component parts, each of which, standing alone, would not have risen to the same prominence. If we talk about how much money we generate as an industry, taxing bodies are among those who take notice. Talk about your importance to communities, and the entire impact your company has on a community will be weighed, including its environmental impact and how much money stays local.
As a fragmented industry, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to travel by writers of business books. We've been pretty much left alone to chronicle our own history, for the most part in the form of ghost-written autobiographies of industry icons.
One notable exception was "Devils on the Deep Blue Sea" by Kristoffer A. Garin (Viking, 2005), subtitled "The Dreams, Schemes, and Showdowns that Built America's Cruise-Ship Empires." The book toggles between admiration and criticism, and whatever its merits and faults, it stands out as a serious attempt to look at cruising as an industry. Its uniqueness in that regard becomes clear when looking at Amazon's list titled "Customers who bought this item also bought." What shows up are highly personal memoir/exposes like "The Truth About Cruise Ships: A Cruise Ship Officer Survives Work Adventure, Alcohol and Sex of Ship Life" (Saltlog Press, 2010) by Jay Herring.
And this year we have "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism" (Simon & Schuster) by Elizabeth Becker, a former New York Times and Washington Post reporter. The timing of its April release was fortuitous; although it was written over several years, its jacket highlights the recent forecasts of travel industry dominance.
In her book Becker, too, casts a sometimes jaundiced, sometimes admiring eye on the business and experience of travel.
What seems clear to me is that the diversity of travel experiences vs. the a monolithic view of it as a business will increasingly lead observers and critics to contrast the two in terms that will not always work to the industry's benefit. "Travel" encompasses everything from escapism to cultural interactions to entertainment to business meetings to simple transportation. Our products enable access to natural wonders and wonderful artifice, stimulating culture and mind-clearing relaxation.
The breadth of our product line will enable writers to make judgments by comparing long lines of vocal children at Disneyland to the peace of backcountry hiking in Yellowstone, as well as the promise of a care-free holiday and those times when something goes horribly wrong on vacations.
Regardless of which aspect of travel you're involved in, you'll be measured against all others, not only in terms of performance, but also responsiveness, transparency and responsibility.
The industry has arrived. Are you prepared?
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.