Brand USA's Chris Thompson on counting inbound travel numbers

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Brand USA, the nation's tourism marketing organization, in December was reauthorized by Congress through 2027. Funding for Brand USA had been scheduled to expire this year. News editor Johanna Jainchill sat down with CEO Chris Thompson in New York last week to discuss the organization's future and why he wants to change the conversation regarding inbound travel numbers.

Q: Congrats on getting reauthorized. What do the next seven years look like for Brand USA?  

Chris Thompson
Chris Thompson

A: We now have a foundation of who we are as our nation's destination marketing organization and what that value proposition looks like and what we can do with our partners at the city and state level. I was both of those at one point [as former Visit Florida CEO and with Tallahassee's destination marketing organization]. That group clearly understands the value proposition and how we can add to what they're doing. Large and small, well-resourced and under-resourced and everything in-between, we have people raising their hand and saying, "Help me." The most sophisticated ones see it as a way to do more than what they can on their own, and on the other end of the spectrum, they never dreamed they could get involved with international marketing. We have seven-figure contributors but we also have people that say, "Can I play with $5,000?" And they can. Now that we have this added runway, we get to figure out what those aspirations look like. What can we do different and new? We get to aspire to the highest levels now.

Q: Do you plan to open new offices or new markets?

A: No, it's the exact opposite. Coming up on a reauthorization deadline you have to plan a contingency: what fringes to cut back on, etc. There are some great lessons in having to responsibly contemplate the worst-case scenario. Now we can bring some of those lessons to what we do. We have a 10-year track record having boots on the ground and 19 offices around the world, and we're asking if that's serving us as well as it should. Also, $100 million is not worth today what it was 10 years ago. When you have flat funding you basically have less money every year. So we have to continue to evolve and get smarter and more efficient at what we're doing. But we're not going to look different as far as the size of the organization. We'll evolve in the different ways we do things, and with everything we do we can ask if it's still the most efficient way to do it.

Q: What do you think of U.S. Travel's concerns about the nation's decline in its share of the global travel market?  

A: Here's how I want to change that dialogue: The share U.S. Travel is talking about is in numbers of people. What defines travel is spend. We're No. 1 in spend, clearly No. 1, with the largest share of travel spending in the world. We are third now in numbers behind Spain and France. Looking back at the numbers of people, we did have a decline -- some due to the decade defined by 9/11 and getting caught up. Since then, the pie has grown disproportionately larger. I'm not sure it's reasonably possible for us to ever get to the share we were at before. I understand that that's an argument. And U.S. Travel will be talking about the things that could get better and what we should be doing, and that's its job in the advocacy space, and I understand that.

Q: There has been a decline in Chinese visitors, and they are the top spenders. Are you upping your efforts there?

A: We haven't backed off anything that we're doing in China. We still have four offices and a digital platform and a separate agency to navigate that market. We're as deployed and invested in China as we've ever been. There are lots of things that have shaped the China relationship, but what we've learned through it all is that there has been no drop-off in the aspirational nature of the U.S. as a destination. Even being down 5% last year, that was off years of record increases from China, healthy double-digit increases. They are still No. 1 in spend even though they are No. 5 in visitation.

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