The travel industry moved on several fronts last week to put business meetings in a positive light and to demand an end to political rhetoric that has begun to damage the meetings, incentives and events businesses.

The U.S. Travel Association launched a national ad campaign in USA Today and other outlets under the theme "Meetings Mean Business." The campaign emphasizes that the meetings business supports 1 million jobs and that meetings-related travel generates $16 billion in state and local tax revenue.

Beyond that effort, 18,000 members of the American Hotel & Lodging Association sent President Barack Obama a letter expressing concern about the negative impact of recent statements by government officials, including the president himself.

Obama last month said that companies receiving government bailout money "can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime."

In response, the AH&LA rounded up 17,932 signatures on a letter protesting the fact that such remarks were causing the cancellation of legitimate business meetings, even by companies that are not on the federal dole.

"We need you to stand up for the American travel industry," the letter stated. "Let’s ensure that those businesses not receiving federal emergency funds can expand and strengthen the American workforce this year and beyond."

The letter continued: "We must be cautious that travel and our employees are not unfairly penalized by political rhetoric. Our industry is vital to our nation’s economic recovery, and we look forward to working with you and your administration to ensure growth in our industry."

Las Vegas, which was one of the destinations criticized by Obama, is working on its own advertising campaign and business meetings "toolkit."

Gotcha journalism

At a news media briefing here unveiling the national ad campaign, U.S. Travel President Roger Dow said even casual remarks by politicians, from Obama on down, were having a chilling effect on legitimate business activity.

He called the backlash against business meetings an "unprecedented crisis" that justified a broad, national campaign to "defend our industry."

"It’s crazy out there," Dow said, likening the situation to a "witch hunt," with news reporters "staking out luxury hotels" hoping for a "gotcha" story.

To illustrate the effect of the backlash, Dow cited a survey by Meetings & Conventions magazine, in which 21% of meeting planners said they had canceled an event this year "as a direct result of the bailout backlash against meetings and travel."

M&C, which is published by Northstar Travel Media, Travel Weekly’s parent, also reported that a majority of respondents who handle incentives have canceled incentive trips.

Geoff Freeman, U.S. Travel’s senior vice president for public affairs, told reporters that the industry’s national campaign has three goals:

• Push for Treasury Department adoption of the industry’s recently published guidelines on responsible meetings.

• Stop any "punitive legislation" in Congress that would restrict travel.

• Get politicians and commentators at all levels to "tone down the rhetoric."

Central to all three points is the basic message that a pervasive mood that U.S. Travel characterized as a "climate of fear" has caused companies to forgo legitimate travel, which is bad for business and bad for communities where travel generates jobs and tax receipts.

In addition to print, online advertising and, possibly, ads in other media, the campaign has a grassroots component, Freeman said.

Hotels are mobilizing their employees, and local convention and visitors bureaus are mobilizing local businesses, to write to elected representatives and make the point that the "real victims" of canceled meetings are the rank-and-file workers in local travel-related businesses.

Joe the Bellman?

Related to that effort in the coming weeks will be an "open audition" to "put a face on the problem," Freeman said. The idea is to find the travel industry equivalent of "Joe the Plumber," a worker who can serve as a spokesperson and bring home the human side of the industry’s plight.

Meanwhile, industry executives and lobbyists are working the Hill. Freeman said the CEOs of several key travel companies were slated to converge again in Washington this week to meet with congressional leaders and administration officials.

At the same time, AH&LA President Joe McInerney was working on a personal letter to Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. John Kerry, two Massachusetts Democrats who have been especially critical of "lavish" expenditures by firms receiving bailout funds.

Kerry has introduced legislation stipulating that no company receiving funds may sponsor "entertainment or holiday events" without a waver from the Treasury Department confirming that the event is "directly related to the business operations" of the company.

Although the bill doesn’t specifically mention meetings, conventions, conferences or incentive travel, it’s the sort of thing that worries industry executives.

"As taxpayers, our industry is encouraged that companies receiving emergency government assistance are being held accountable for the funds they receive," McInerney said in a statement. "But the mixed messages politicians like Rep. Frank and Sen. Kerry are sending are troubling. On one hand, they issue statements about the need to create jobs. But on the other hand, they cry out when corporations spend money on publicity and meetings. In the same way politicians run campaigns to advertise their candidacies, American corporations spend money on promotional activities to advertise their products or business."

Leaving Las Vegas

In Las Vegas, meanwhile, Steve Wynn said Obama’s statements had already spurred cancellations across the city.

"I’m sure the president didn’t mean to stigmatize the convention and meetings business in Las Vegas when it was conducted by companies that weren’t on the government dole," Wynn told investors last month. "But that’s the effect that it had."

Wynn said the chairman of "one of the healthiest companies" in the U.S. paid a $3.3 million fee to scrub a $5 million sales training event.

"It’s disturbing to me when the chairman of such a company feels intimidated," Wynn said. He said he hoped "the rhetoric that is used is more considered in the future. It’s been demonstrated to us that it can have unintended consequences."

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) said it was working with U.S. Travel to battle the rhetoric. At the end of February, it ran an "open letter" ad in the Wall Street Journal.

"Las Vegas is more fun than any other place on the planet. Guilty as charged," the ad declared. "However, serious business is done here every day."

The LVCVA is also developing a broader advertising campaign.

Paradoxically, Las Vegas’ very successful "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" campaign is part of what is now hurting the city, said Robert Lang, co-director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.

Lang recently co-authored a report for the Brookings Institution on the importance of Las Vegas to the country’s economy.

"They were smart to do it, because it signaled a shift to the Rat Pack era and away from the family stuff that wasn’t working," Lang said. "This was something that was really good for them in terms of redefining the city. … But now, it looks like it’s just frivolity. People are forgetting what goes on there … the importance of face-to-face meetings."

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