The travel industry finally got a much coveted audience with President Trump last week at the White House, and 14 industry leaders used the opportunity to make a case for why the administration needs to help increase inbound visitors.

The U.S. Travel Association's first face-to-face with the president was attended by Marriott International's Arne Sorenson, Hilton Worldwide's Chris Nassetta, Hyatt's Mark Hoplamazian and other top executives, including the heads of Universal Studios, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Wyndham Worldwide and InterContinental Hotels Group, all members of U.S. Travel's CEO Roundtable.

The meeting came at a time when the U.S. travel industry is facing a slowing rate of inbound growth, even though travel is booming globally. 

Recalling the meeting for Travel Weekly a day after it took place, U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow said he told the president that the U.S. has been losing its market share of international travelers; since 2015, the U.S. share has fallen from 13.6% to 12%.

"Bottom line, we said the rest of the world is growing, and we're flat, and here are some ideas about how we can help that," Dow said. "We're so labor-intensive as an industry, if you want to drive the economy, drive jobs, we can help."

The meeting was reminiscent of the one Dow arranged with President Obama in 2009, after Obama said of corporations accepting federal bailout money, "You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime."

U.S. Travel and multiple CEOs from the industry met with Obama shortly afterward to explain the economic impact of the travel industry and the jobs at stake. Obama subsequently implemented a national travel and tourism strategy and set a goal for 100 million visitors. 

Dow called the meeting with Trump "a first step."

"The proof will be in what happens afterward," Dow said. "We're helping put a plan together with the White House to let us help [the administration] grow the economy. This is a first step in getting the Trump administration engaged in how we can partner with them." 

A major difference between then and now is that 2009 fell within the Great Recession. At last week's meeting, Trump told the CEOs that they should be happy about the booming economy. Dow said he responded that while the industry was doing well, it could do better. 

Trump found himself talking with several outspoken critics of his policies and rhetoric. Sorenson, especially, has been openly critical of Trump's travel ban, saying last year that it was "Not good. Period." He told Bloomberg News, "There's a perception around the world that the U.S. is a little less welcoming than it was in the past." 

Dow said those issues did not go unaddressed, although it was acknowledged that the visitor drop-off began before Trump took office or was even a candidate, precipitated by a strong dollar and weaker economies abroad, among other factors. 

Still, Dow said that Sorenson told Trump, "I'll be honest with you, the rhetoric coming out of the White House could certainly be a lot more positive and [could alert the world] that we're open for business.'"

Dow said, "There was no pushback.  [Trump] said, 'I understand, but I'm worried about security.' And we said, 'So are we: Without security there is no travel.' So, hopefully, we'll begin hearing some more messages about let's get more legitimate travelers to the U.S." 

U.S. Travel now has homework to do, Dow said. Trump asked that it come up with a list of five things the administration can do to help increase inbound travel as well as what countries would be the most important ones to add to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Poland and Israel were mentioned as good candidates.

Dow said Trump agreed that the VWP is badly named and he would see what could be done about changing the name. U.S. Travel has long lobbied for a name change. 

Dow recalled that a lot of the discussion focused on infrastructure issues.

"We said, 'Quite frankly, if we don't improve our infrastructure, we can't ever get to 100 million travelers because we just can't process them,'" Dow said. 

Trump responded that it was important that the travel industry help voice that need more loudly by talking about how important infrastructure is and pointing out that it can be a choke point in visitor growth. 

The Roosevelt Room meeting was also attended by Ivanka Trump; Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council; and Christopher Liddell, deputy chief of staff for policy coordination.

Dow said the meeting was offered by the White House about a week in advance, and he eagerly accepted. 

He said that the Trump family's background as hoteliers helped the conversation. 

"I think that's what made it an easy meeting," Dow said. "Ivanka was talking about jobs, and I said, 'You know pretty well how labor-intensive our industry is from your days in the hotel business.' I think the president truly felt he was among colleagues who he understood."

Kurt Stahura, dean of Niagara University's College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, said such a meeting was important to the travel industry for various reasons. One is that understanding where the administration stands will help the industry make investment decisions.  

"People in the hospitality industry try to make projections," he said. "The information that they receive from Trump relative to visas and access will determine building, money put into marketing, if additional cruise ships will be built, hiring practices. There's a spin-off effect to this: We are talking about hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars worth of decisions."

The U.S. dip in market share, Stahura said, is alarming enough that the president needed to be made aware of it and of the negative impact that visa policies can have, such as ones impacting visitor numbers from China and India, the world's two most populous countries. 

"The information needed to be conveyed, and he needed to be aware of this and how many people were being impacted and the dollars involved," Stahura said. "Whether it will make an impact, that remains to be seen. The fact that they got an audience is a good first step and a necessary step."

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