CORRECTED: The headline of this report was corrected to say that Roger Dow is stepping down as CEO at U.S. Travel. Dow is not retiring.
Earlier this week, Roger Dow announced that he would step down as CEO of U.S. Travel in July 2022, after completing his 18th year in that role. He spoke with Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann about why he was leaving, what he intends to do next and critical issues still facing the industry.
Q: Let's start with the most basic questions: Why are you leaving, and why now?
A: Real simple. When I retired from Marriott to take this job in 2004, I said I'd take it for five years. So I'm basically on, like, four extensions. My plan had been to leave at the end of 2020 or 2021, but then Covid happened last March. (U.S. Travel chair) Christine Duffy said, "Hey, we're in the midst of this thing. Will you extend?" So what we're doing now is just making a formal date.
Q: What do you see as the accomplishment you most want to be remembered for?
A: Taking a whole industry association to another level, where it is meaningful and effective. Quite frankly, when I joined [what was then called the Travel Industry Association], [Marriott International executive chairman] Bill Marriott said, "Why would you want to do this? You know, that organization isn't that robust." I said, "Bill, wouldn't it be great if it were robust?" We were a $13 million association then; pre-Covid in 2019, we were $34 million and change. Growing, but also growing advocacy. The advocacy role back then was a $650,000 shop -- a couple of policy wonks who basically reported news. Now our shop is $8 million or more.
That, and Brand USA. And bringing people to the table: We had four destinations on our CEO Roundtable; now we have 45 of the biggest cities. We created the CEO Roundtable. We have the Gateway Airports Council. I think we came of age in 2008 during the financial crisis, when meetings and events were under attack, and we created Meetings Mean Business, which Christine and I spearheaded.
Q: Looking back, what did you find unexpectedly difficult? And what was easier than you had imagined?
A: It was unexpectedly hard to manage an umbrella trade association that represented the interests of so many areas. We've got lodging, we've got distribution, airports, airlines, destinations, payment systems. We had to find the common thread because some of those groups have areas they don't agree on. So, our focus stayed on increasing travel to and within the United States.
The easiest thing was the thing I had had the most trepidation about: lobbying. I'm not a lobbyist, but I came to the realization that all it is is sales. Whether you're sitting down with the president or a Cabinet secretary or [House speaker] Nancy Pelosi or [Senate majority leader] Chuck Schumer or [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell or [House minority leader] Kevin McCarthy, it's a matter of saying, "This is important, and here's why." That's what I've done my whole life.
Q: What will the organization be looking for in its next CEO?
A: I think they'll look for somebody who is very strong from a relationship standpoint, who is growth-oriented, who is strategic. It has to be someone who CEOs, Cabinet officials and senators will look at and say, "This is someone worth listening to."
Q: What's the biggest challenge currently facing the industry?
A:The workforce. We've lost 8 million of the 17 million people who had worked in travel in April 2020. That's almost 50%. You've seen the stories saying that 50% of those people aren't coming back, and I think that's a reality. People may say they're collecting unemployment and don't want to go back, but that's only part of the group. The other part looked at this industry and said, you know, it's fragile, I'm going to move to something else. Or the work-life balance isn't right, or there isn't enough diversity, equity and inclusion. How do we create the path to get young people to look at this industry, at how phenomenal it can be? We've got to think differently.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I love this industry. When I was at Marriott, I only played with Marriott folks. The fun here has been playing with everybody. So I think it's going to be industry-related. I'd like to keep addressing some of the problems we're looking at. I want to stay close to this industry.