On ESPN's "Monday Night Football" this week, fans will see more than the return of live gridiron action: They'll watch two ads that are part of the largest travel promotion campaign since just after 9/11.
A coalition of 75 (and counting) U.S. travel companies has so far raised more than $10 million for a campaign to reassure Americans it's OK to start planning their next trip, to wherever it may be.
Spearheaded by the U.S. Travel Association, the Let's Go There Coalition includes the Big Three airlines, Disney, the largest hotel brands and many destination marketing organizations. In addition to the ad placement on ESPN on Monday, others will appear on the Cooking Channel and National Geographic.
Let's Go There (:90 seconds) from U.S. Travel on Vimeo.
It will also launch online on YouTube and Hulu and in digital ads and in radio spots on the iHeartMedia network.
The message is the result of months of research looking at when and how to encourage travel as the nation struggles through the Covid-19 pandemic. The coalition cited a poll conducted by Michelle Gielan, founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and an expert in the science of happiness, which found that 97% of respondents said having a trip planned makes them happier.
"Booking a trip -- even just getting it on the calendar -- might be the very thing we need to restore our emotional immune system after months of mounting uncertainty and stress," she said.
With Americans recording their lowest levels of happiness in 50 years, according to Gielan, the coalition hopes that even a trip planned relatively far out may lift the national mood as well as give the travel industry a much-needed boost.
Linda Canina, a professor at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, thinks the message is right for the moment.
"How long have we been in isolation?" she said. "All the people I know staying at home and not socially interacting are pretty depressed. I think that taking a vacation, when you know you'll be safe, and just having a change of scenery will have a huge impact on peoples' moods."
The message now is vastly different than the post-9/11 one, "Go USA," which U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow said encouraged a "frozen" nation to get out again.
Jill Estorino, president of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products and co-chair of the "Let's Go There" campaign, said its goal "is to inspire Americans and give them permission to start making future plans."
Dow added that the group was very careful to not be "tone deaf" in terms of the timing of the campaign's launch.
"We didn't want to say 'get out there now' and have the governor of New York say, 'what are you doing?' This is about planning," he said.
Post-9/11, travel was pitched as a way to stimulate the economy. Coalition members say that with the travel industry far more wounded now, that message still applies. Visit California CEO Caroline Beteta called booking a trip "a great act of modern-day patriotism to help our communities get back to thriving."
With around 600,000 hospitality workers currently unemployed in California alone, she said, "We want to emphasize the importance that every hotel and every restaurant means to people in those communities getting back to work."
The coalition is well aware that different regions of the country are better or worse prepared to encourage planning. Visit California's customized version of the campaign says "Let's Go There, Soon," while other destinations, like Philadelphia and South Dakota, are welcoming visitors now.
The quarantine conundrum
A major roadblock for any domestic travel and travel planning are quarantines imposed on residents of states with high Covid-19 rates by ones with lower levels, including most states in the Northeast. New York, for example, requires residents from 34 states to quarantine for 14 days.
Dow said that U.S. Travel is against such policies and that they should be replaced with mandates to follow safe travel guidelines. He pointed to the missed opportunities for states like New York and those in New England to benefit from the upcoming fall foliage season.
Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at U.S. Travel, said, "We are not supportive of quarantines per se, but we are very supportive of folks practicing health and safety guidance: wearing masks and distancing where they can and considering outdoor locations for their travel experiences.
"But from an economic recovery standpoint, we need states to consider lifting their quarantines. That's one of the reasons we've been such a huge proponent of rapid, reliable testing ... to give more confidence to folks that they are around folks that are also Covid-free."
She added that the campaign "takes the long view of travel," focusing on planning, with the expectation that "elected officials across this country, especially where there are quarantines, want jobs to come back and the economy in their states to grow."
For now, people who can't travel to other states should focus on their own.
"We're thinking about this in the context of different regions and different states opening in different ways," she said. "So if you can't travel from New York to California, consider traveling throughout your own state."
Cornell's Canina, however, argues that the quarantines help give people the confidence to travel.
"This is showing that they're providing a safe environment, so you feel secure going there," she said. "If governments start becoming too lax and the number of cases started growing, that would kill travel."