The U.S. Travel Association's conference, held in San Antonio this year, is a platform for Brand USA to showcase its offerings to media from around the world. News editor Johanna Jainchill sat down with CEO Chris Thompson to talk about which issues tend to impact inbound travel to the U.S. and the importance of staying competitive.
Q: Several groups recently issued travel advisories for Florida, calling the state hostile to Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ people. Is there potential impact on the international market from such advisories?
A: When we do our sentiment survey, those types of things haven't typically risen to the highest levels of reasons why people do or don't travel. But in the absence of a welcoming message or a welcoming experience, there is no travel. So we understand that that's the highest priority and what we work for. Coming out of Covid, our task was to provide the welcome, and it's one thing to say that we're ready to welcome visitors, but they have to actually see that we're ready to welcome visitors. When former Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson joined our board, he said, "If we spend $100 or $100 million, if we don't let the world know they're welcome, we're wasting our money." It has been a pillar of our organization from day one.
Q: What are the top issues in the sentiment survey?
A: Most of the headwinds that we know about are economic: Inflation and currency; visa processing; Covid at its height; and [air] connectivity, which suffered critically during Covid. We're projecting that we'll be as much as 96% back to connectivity levels by the end of this year. It's going to look different. During Covid, airlines had a chance to go in and look at their route structures and how they're delivering their products. For instance, British Airways is now flying into Cincinnati Airport. So we're excited, and the airlines are bullish on the return to connectivity.
Q: Gun violence has come up among the international attendees here as a concern. Is it an issue on the survey?
A: It hasn't risen to the highest levels. But in the absence of safety, there is no travel. So we as American citizens are watching what the world is watching, and we know that it's got to improve. It's outside of our control individually as an organization, but we're hopeful that it has risen to a level of attention where the people who can make decisions and changes see it and say, "This is unacceptable."
I think the one thing that helps us in our messaging is the ability we have as individual DMOs and as a collective industry to talk about the importance of travel and tourism in our local economies. Throughout Covid, the sector most impacted and slowest to recover has been the hospitality industry. I say it's doing a tremendous disservice to refer to it only as the hospitality industry.
In my hometown, Tallahassee, Fla., there's a little Italian restaurant that my wife and I ate at every Sunday. They shut down over Covid. When they reopened I would tip them 100%. After I did that a second or third time, the waitress came out and started crying and said, "Why are you doing this?" I said, "Because I want you to be here." It isn't just the hospitality industry. It's the fabric of my community, a reason why we've lived there for 40 years.
Q: As the world reopens, how's the competitive landscape?
A: Competition is as fierce as it's ever been. It gets down to the nature of what we get to sell. We're doing our job of keeping a pulse on what consumers want and making them realize that anything they want is here. We can compete with anybody as far as the end product. We have to rely on all these suppliers and DMOs to deliver the experiences we're talking about. They trust us to go tell the whole story, and we trust them to deliver their part of it.