Courting the American traveler: A Travel Weekly Roundtable

When destinations consider how, or if, to promote themselves to travelers from the U.S., they are sizing up a $95 billion market with 61 million travelers. How much should they invest? How should it be divided among the Web, other media, travel agents and tour operators?

To gain a better understanding of how international destination marketers approach the U.S., Travel Weekly, the Wall Street Journal and the Travel Channel brought together seven people who represent countries that are hoping to increase their share of American travelers.

Their budgets range from $10 million to nothing. Some struggle to build tourist traffic, others puzzle over how to manage and leverage their popularity. All were willing to share, in candor and detail, their approach to marketing their countries to Americans.

The participants who gathered at the Harvard Club in New York this past summer to take part in the discussion were Simion Alb, director of the Romanian Tourist Office, North America; Francesco Brazzini, national marketing manager, Italian Government Tourist Board; Linda Ericson, acting director, Visit Sweden; Adel Grobler, marketing and communications manager -- USA, South African Tourism; Sayed Khalifa, consul-director USA and Latin America, and Omayma El Husseini, assistant director, Egyptian Tourist Authority; Katherine Jochen, market development manager, Ethiopian Airlines; Arie Sommer, consul, tourism commissioner North and South America, Israel Ministry of Tourism; and Agri Verrija, advisor, Embassy of Albania.

The session was moderated by Travel Weekly's editor in chief, Arnie Weissmann.

(Editor's note: The original transcript has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together even though the topic may have recurred at intervals during the course of the conversation.) 

Arnie Weissmann: Do your governments readily see the benefit in funding a campaign aimed at U.S. travelers, or is it a bit of a battle to get funding? 

Arie Sommer: The U.S. is the No. 1 source of tourism for the state of Israel, and we decided to launch a major campaign in major markets in New York, south Florida and California. So we are now on TV -- cable and regular channels -- in major daily newspapers, on search engines, with online travel agents.

Sayed Khalifa: What's your total budget?

Sommer: We're going to invest around $10 million this year. The budget is something of a miracle. Usually it runs around $2 million total for marketing and advertising.

Weissmann: What changed this year? 

Sommer: Well, we didn't discover any oil wells in Israel. To persuade the government and the treasury to allocate special budgets for tourism, we first had to convince them that tourism is a major industry.

We retained Ernst & Young and conducted a major survey. We paid a lot of money for this campaign. We could have done it ourselves, but sometimes you have to pay in order to get the additional budget.

Once we collected the surveys, compared and saw the results, we were able to get it. And one of our conditions was that it would be a budget for the next five years. There is no point in just pouring on the money for six or seven months and then disappearing from the market. If you cannot continue with it on a regular basis, you are not going to see any results. 

Weissmann: So you'll have $10 million a year for several years to come? 

Sommer: Hopefully. We are not sure. This was the decision, but you know these politicians. You never know. We are civil servants, we are slaves. We don't know.

Adel Grobler: First, I want to say I'm very jealous, Arie. Your budget sounds very good. That said, tourism has actually exceeded gold in the value to the gross domestic product of South Africa. We call tourism "the new gold." And for every 12 tourists that visit South Africa, another job is created. We need to get as many people there as we can because we have a situation of high unemployment.

So tourism is a very strong focus for the country, and we have a very, very excitable and interested tourism minister. It's his passion, and he'll continue to make sure we get the right amount of money.

Weissmann: Are you in the midst of a campaign now? 

Grobler: We have been quiet in the market for a little while, since we have had changeovers with new agencies promoting us. In the past, blanket targeting [with consumer advertising] has not delivered for us. The return on investment is just not what we need. So we decided this year we are going to do a much more direct marketing campaign. We are going to find the people we want to speak to, and we are going to surround them with the message that will eventually move travel to South Africa.

Comparing our advertising budget to, say, Australia, which is one of our major competitors, we cannot compete. I'm talking less than a million dollars. So we have to be more wise about how we use that money.

Weissmann: How will you use it? 

Grobler: We have some print advertising, and we're definitely going to have a strong online presence, but mostly direct marketing: e-mail, direct mail pieces, speaking to, say, American Express card holders. We want to speak to people that know about South Africa and are interested, the kind of people that have the money and the time to spend in South Africa. Not everyone will take a 17-hour flight to a country on the other side of the world which they are not familiar with.

Weissmann: Is the amount you mentioned -- less than $1 million -- your entire budget? 

Grobler: No, just for this specific project. It does not include, for instance, our work with the travel agent community or other marketing.

Weissmann: How much more is that? 

Grobler: I would say for all marketing and trade, about $4.5 million.

Linda Ericson: We're running a campaign this year together with VisitDenmark, Scandinavian Airlines, Wonderful Copenhagen and the Stockholm Visitors Board to increase the traffic to Copenhagen and Stockholm from the U.S. We're promoting city breaks to people who want to spend a long weekend or four or five nights in either or both cities.

Weissmann: Who are you targeting for that? 

Ericson: Certain geographical areas, in particular places where SAS has their gateways in the U.S.

And because the number of cruise passengers to the Baltics is increasing every year, we're also focusing on pre- and post-cruise stays in Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Weissmann: How much money will you be spending? 

Ericson: The budget is very small, $300,000 approximately. We are trying to do it in a smart way, mainly the Web for consumers and working with travel agents for the pre- and post-cruise stays.

Agri Verrija: You know, I'm getting a bit more optimistic. I thought it would be very difficult and expensive to break into the U.S. market. But after hearing $300,000 for Sweden, $1 million for a campaign for South Africa, $10 million for Israel, I think Albania would do well with even half of what the Swedes -- or a quarter of what the Swedes -- put into a campaign.

Albania has been through a long economic and political transition and for the last two or three years has been a lot more stable. The government has made development of tourism a top priority.

Perhaps in the near future it will seriously, I think, allocate money [for the U.S. market].

Katherine Jochen: For the Ethiopians, I think, at this point it's going to come soon. The country has also been in a lot of transition and a lot of change over the last couple of years, and I think they are beginning to realize the value of tourism, and eventually there will be money allocated. It's just not happening now.

You are dealing with an African country that in a lot of ways has other, more pressing issues.

Khalifa: For the American market, we have never had a big or comprehensive campaign, but last year we had a campaign of a little over $1 million, and this year we are running another campaign for about $1.5 million. The bulk of this budget goes to the consumers.

We're putting commercials on TV in two bursts, one in September and one in late January or early February.



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