U.S. Travel's Roger Dow on whether Biden's election is good news for travel

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With America's contentious elections mostly behind us, the travel industry is looking to Congress and President-elect Joe Biden for more financial relief and other measures to get travel moving again. Senior editor Jeri Clausing talked with Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, about the election and its expected impact on travel.

Roger Dow
Roger Dow

Q: Is a Biden presidency good news for travel?

A: Yes. We do think so. Each president has taken us another step in travel. When Obama was elected president, he didn't know much about travel. We got in to talk to him, and all of a sudden he embraced international travel and created Brand USA and brought international inbound from 50 million to 80 million. And Trump kept that going. Then Covid hit.

[With the elections] we've played this very close, putting a plan together for a second Trump administration but also working for weeks with the Biden senior team on a 100-day platform for travel, so it looks like that's what we're going to end up implementing.

I do think he will be a good one. He's spoken about how important a relief package is. [It's about] getting a comprehensive relief package passed that is both health- and safety-oriented and bringing back the American economy. And we can't bring back America until we get business travel, meetings and events and international travel [going]. Right now, we're limping on leisure travel, which is good but not great. But we need the other three pieces, and I think he can help us there.

We're talking about a stimulus package, some tax relief for meetings and events, some tax credit for travel, which would be brilliant. Then restore international travel [with standardized] testing. ... And we've got to do smart testing: The last thing in the world you want to have to do is to take a test to fly from New York to Washington. But if you're going to go from New York to Madrid, you might just want to have everybody tested before they get on a plane.

We're working right now on our 100-day platform, and the bottom line is I think this is going to be very good. We've got Sen. [Catherine] Cortez Masto [a Democrat] from Nevada and Sen. [Kevin] Cramer [a Republican] from North Dakota introducing a tax credit package for travel and meetings and events, so if we can get that done and a companion package in the House, it'll really jump-start travel at the right time, if we get this vaccine.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about the tax credit. What would it entail?

A: Basically we're talking about a tax credit for travel. It was going to be up to $4,000 per family that you could deduct. Same thing for meetings and events, for [attending] a meeting or event you could take a tax deduction. 

Q: What is the most important thing that we need to do to get people traveling again?

A: To get confidence in the system and confidence from employers. One of the biggest challenges we have right now, I believe, is corporate travel policies. The corporate travel policy at almost every company is do not travel, do not go to a meeting. And that [has been the case] since March. We really need to get corporations to say it's safe to put our people on the road.

Liability protection is so important. And I know that's contentious, but we [need to] get short-term liability protection where -- say, if Travel Weekly asks Jeri to travel and Jeri gets Covid, she's not going to come back and sue Travel Weekly.  Or if she is staying at the Ritz-Carlton, she can't sue the hotel.

I think testing -- rapid, reliable testing -- is going to be one of the key factors in getting international travel moving again. Right now, a PCR test costs you $150; that's awkward. But if you have something that's cheaper, 90% reliable and Covid-specific, that will be a game-changer. We're looking at several testing companies. We know that Abbott Labs has a low-cost, $6 to $10 test that the government [is using] for first responders, etc. But come January that low-cost, reliable testing is going to be available to the public.

Q: Some people have been talking about how we need to have a Cabinet-level tourism position, like a tourism secretary. Is that important to you?

A: We don't have a secretary of tourism; almost every developed country does. [A secretary-level post] would be ideal, but I don't see that in the cards at the moment. We think it would be important to take the job that's now an assistant secretary in the Commerce Department and move it up into greater prominence within the department. I'm not sure we need [a tourism secretary], but we sure need someone who can pull together all sections of government, someone that has a lot of clout. To get people traveling again, when you think about it, it involves Homeland Security, it involves the Transportation Department. It involves the State Department and the Commerce Department. You need someone that can pull those four entities together and [create] a policy that will open up travel internationally and for America. Without that, we're talking to ourselves. 

Q: Getting borders open relies on a lot of cooperation between international governments. Do you think Biden can help facilitate some of that?

A: I would think so. The problem with opening up international travel is every country has different specifications. People don't know if when they go to Australia, do they have to quarantine for 14 days or not. The only way we're going to open up international travel is if there is a consistent set of standards around the world ... where a traveler gets on a plane and knows this is the way it works.

Q: How do we get there?

A: If I were Biden, I would say I want to convene the G20 or whatever for emergency meetings to talk about how we're going to safely open up international travel around the world. I'd put committees together, get experts to come up with a solution that will open up travel around the world safely.

Q: It seems that has been kind of the missing link in this pandemic. 

A: It's the missing link in the United States. I don't know today if when I travel to New York will I have to quarantine or not. I don't know what happens in Massachusetts. If I travel from Texas to California, I don't know if I will have to quarantine for 14 days. 

Q: Given the ongoing dispute over the outcome of the election, do you think we will see much progress in reviving tourism this year?

A: The most important initiative, and both sides seem to be talking about it, is to get the next round of relief packages put in place. Let's face it, that became political, and it should not have. While people were arguing about how big it should be, we had small businesses going out of business, people who can't pay their mortgages. And the other thing that's needed that's travel-related is we've got to get the [destination marketing organizations] into PPP; it was a tragic mistake when they excluded DMOs. The reason they did that is some politicians were saying we don't want to pay lobbying people. But with that broad brush of taking out lobbying organizations, they took out all the DMOs, Broadway, museums. That wasn't intended, but we've got to get that back. You can't bring travel back unless designation marketing organizations are able to promote their destination.

Q: With the heightened awareness of social injustice this year, is it important to have protections for minority companies and ensure underserved communities are not missing out on relief?

A: I think anything that would protect minority companies, small businesses, is important. The other thing is, if I'm Biden I'm looking at Mark Twain's quote from over 120 year ago: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrowmindedness." And what an opportunity for a new president to step up and say, "We're going to heal America. Let's go see our brothers and sisters around the country ... and that' where travel and tourism comes in." 

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