Brand USA chief Chris Thompson on jump-starting travel to the U.S.

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On Nov. 8, travel industry leaders gathered at the Empire State Building to celebrate the reopening of U.S. borders to vaccinated travelers from a long list of previously restricted countries, including most of Europe. At an event celebrating the first British Airways flight from the U.K. to New York since the start of the travel ban, news editor Johanna Jainchill spoke with Brand USA CEO Chris Thompson about how to jump-start travel to the U.S.

Chris Thompson
Chris Thompson

Q: Will this change mean a major boost in arrivals?

A: All across Europe, there's a lot of promised vacations for kids and families that had been unrealized for so long. Our federal government putting that stake in the ground, saying, "This is how we're going to move forward and learn how to live with this pandemic," was a huge step. So today, being the first day that we can welcome vaccinated visitors ... is a monumental day. I've said all along that it's never been a demand issue: Our destination, for all the reasons why it's aspirational around the world, is no less of any of that. It's just a world pandemic not allowing people to travel. 

Our team has been talking about perfectly timing when we launch our marketing again, and I said, "I'm not all that concerned about that. I don't think there's a lot that needs to be done for this day." The enthusiasm, the excitement, the optimism is going to take on a life of its own. I think it's more important that we're ready to throw fuel on the fire, to remind repeat visitors why they love the USA and for first-time visitors dreaming about it. It's a great day. It's the start of whatever the next normal looks like.

Q: What markets are showing the most interest already?

A: In general, there's a tremendous desire from all our top markets for people to come back. There are varying levels of anxiety associated with even our borders opening. My first international trip was for our Travel Week event in London a couple of weeks ago, and you have to go through that the first time to realize there's new levels of accountability, reporting and boxes you have to check. But I would have to say, once you go through it the first time, you realize that it's just different. There's nothing extraordinarily difficult about it. I think there are those levels of anxieties, and it's our job to address each and every one of those. Other than that, the demand is universally strong across the majority of our markets.

Q: U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow often talks about the Lost Decade of travel after 9/11. What can the U.S. do to avoid that now?

A: One of the best things that happened is that our domestic tourism economy came back, and it came back quicker and stronger than any of the forecasters said. That gave our hospitality industry an ability to ramp back up, open back up and get ready for recovery as it relates to domestic travel. That was a head start in doing the same for international travel. But we're not all the way back to where we need, as far as our ability to even deliver at the levels of back in 2019. The second thing that happened when our domestic economy opened was that we showed the world that all the experiences they had in the past and want to come back to, or are dreaming about having for the first time, are here and ready and waiting for them. They've seen us getting out and about in our cities and around our states and our country. It was a way for us to gain the consumer confidence we need from them. Tourism Economics says we won't be able to get back to 2019 levels until 2024, 2025. I tend to think that just as the domestic travel economy returned quicker and more powerfully than forecast, the same thing will happen with international. But so many things are out of our control.

Q: Will airlift recover to the levels needed to achieve this?

A: The hospitality sector was disproportionately affected in general, but airlines took as big a hit as anybody. They've had to redeploy equipment, track and anticipate demand and figure out the most productive use for equipment on which routes. That's still part of the recovery phase and will dictate how quickly we recover. As the borders are now open and as they've tested demand, I think we're going to start to see service come back. 

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