The travel industry found itself having to take sides with
or against student survivors of the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., shooting, who called
for a spring break boycott of travel to the Sunshine State.
David Hogg, a student who survived the Marjory Stoneman
Douglas High School attack that killed 17, tweeted on Feb. 24: "Let's make
a deal. DO NOT come to Florida for spring break unless gun legislation is
passed. These politicians won't listen to us, so maybe they'll listen to the
billion-dollar tourism industry."
As of last week, Hogg's
tweet had been liked by 170,000 people and had been retweeted 62,000 times.
Hogg, one of many students-turned-gun-control-advocates,
went so far as to suggest that people instead travel to Puerto Rico, which, he
tweeted, "could really use the economic support that the [federal]
government has failed to provide."
Travel agents and destination marketers in Florida found
themselves divided about whether or not to support a boycott of their state
during a peak travel time.
Alan Rosen, president of Sand & C Travel in Boynton
Beach, Fla., just 30 minutes from Parkland, said he supported the spring break
"We've talked to a lot of people who had kids who were
in the building at the time, experienced horrific things to the point of
walking by, or over, bodies to get out of the school," he said. "But
what's certainly been uplifting has been the response of these kids. They're
Rosen called on fellow agents to recommend other
destinations for their clients' spring break travel, because "we need to
send a strong message to our leaders that inaction cannot be tolerated any
"I now believe the best opportunity for change is
through the actions of the students and by hitting our leaders in the
pocketbook," Rosen said.
Like Rosen, Jesse Taylor, who heads the U.S. operations of
Going Places Travel in Fort Lauderdale, also knows families affected by the
tragedy. But he does not support the boycott.
"I think it's the wrong direction," Taylor said.
"I believe there are other ways -- maybe campaigning to vote the
nonresponsive politicians out -- rather than hurting all the men and women who
are involved in this multibillion-dollar tourism industry here in Florida."
Mo Noubani, president and founder of Travel Box
International in Orlando and the president of ASTA's Central and North Florida
Chapter, said that he, too, opposed a boycott.
"I do feel there could be a lot more effective ways to
address this," he said, adding that he is not against getting legislators'
attention on gun control but that a travel boycott is not the answer.
"The problem is not stemming from the tourism
industry," he said. "So why should [tourism] take full-on
Visit Florida, the state's destination marketing
organization (DMO), was tasked last week with speaking for Gov. Rick Scott as
well as for local DMOs from Orlando to Panama City in responding to the call
for a travel boycott.
But Visit Florida's response failed to address the boycott
question, with Stephen Lawson, the DMO's vice president of government
relations, saying only that it "will continue to market our state as a
welcoming and safe world-class destination. The Sunshine State is always open
Jeff Webb, president of the Lee County chapter of the
Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which includes Fort Myers and
Sanibel Island, voiced support for the students but was concerned that a
boycott might actually work, given the country's focus on the gun issue and how
effective the students have been at mobilizing.
"I applaud them, but I'm concerned about the
impact," Webb said. "People will listen to them. It will probably
sway some people from traveling to Florida."
Webb had an alternative spring break idea for the students:
Go to Tallahassee and sit in front of the governor's mansion in protest.
U.S. businesses feel the fallout
The fallout from the shooting stretched far beyond Florida,
with corporate America, including many travel companies, targeted for boycotts
owing to their affiliations with the National Rifle Association (NRA).
In the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting, Delta and United both
announced that they had stopped offering discounted fares to NRA members to
attend their annual meetings. The two airlines also asked the NRA to remove any
references to them from its website. American said it had never offered NRA
Georgia lawmakers last week punished Delta for its move,
stripping a jet fuel tax break from a tax measure passed by the Senate, which
would have benefited airlines flying into and out of the state. The vote made
good on Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's threat to stop any tax break that would benefit
"I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless
the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with
@NRA," Cagle tweeted. "Corporations cannot attack conservatives and
expect us not to fight back."
Car rental companies Hertz, Avis Budget and Enterprise
Holdings also ended their respective partnerships with the NRA, while the
nation's largest hotel companies clarified that they'd either discontinued any
affiliation with the NRA before the Parkland shooting or had never had one in
the first place.
Wyndham Hotels Group said it ended a relationship with the
NRA late last year, while Best Western Hotels & Resorts said it ended its
NRA association in 2014.
No other major hotel brand said it had ever offered
discounts or perks to NRA members.
The one travel company that publicly defended its NRA
affiliation was the OTA HotelPlanner.com, which serves as the booking portal
for the NRA Travel Center, where the NRA claims that HotelPlanner.com offers
members discounts of as much as 65%.
In a Feb. 26 interview on CNBC, Tim Hentschel, CEO of
HotelPlanner.com, which specializes in group bookings, vowed to maintain the
company's NRA affiliation, although he said that the amount of travel NRA
members booked through the OTA was "insignificant."
"We just believe in classic hospitality," said
Hentschel, whose parents are American Tours International founder Noel Irwin
Hentschel and former Hyatt executive Gordon Hentschel. "If you ask us to
be part of your boycott war, that's not what we're about."
Danny King contributed to this report.