. The Numbers Look Good, But Roger Dow Is Worried About the Meetings Industry | Northstar Meetings Group

The Numbers Look Good, But Roger Dow Is Worried About the Meetings Industry

The leader of U.S. Travel outlines the hurdles ahead -- and significant victories -- during NMG's Leadership Forum.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, being interviewed by Loren Edelstein, vice president and content director for Northstar Meetings Group. Photo Credit:Ketara Gadahn, Studio Alani

It's tough to get much accomplished in Washington, D.C., of late, but Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, is doggedly working to clear a number of hurdles that are threatening the country's long-standing growth streak in the travel and meetings sector. And, he said, the leaders of our business need to be aware -- and involved -- for our collective success.

That was his message this morning to the 100 top executives who participated in Northstar Meetings Group's annual Leadership Forum, taking place this week at The Cloister at Sea Island, Ga. The following is excerpted from the event's opening session, a live interview that was conducted by Loren Edelstein, vice president and content director for NMG.

How are things in D.C.?

Well, the great thing about D.C. is the ability to be here in Sea Island! Nothing's happening in D.C.; it's one of the more frustrating things in the world. D.C.'s a tough place for getting things done these days. It's harder than ever

How has this year been for the travel and meetings industry?

It's a good year. Meetings have been doing very well. They were down several years ago, but they're coming back by several percent every year. One thing that concerns me is that we're on 123 straight months of growth. We've grown every single month for 10 years. Nothing stays like that. So, we should be thinking about what could happen.

How is the meetings industry doing compared with other U.S. business sectors?

Right now, from meetings standpoint, we're doing well compared to other businesses, but we're at the mercy of all other businesses. If the auto business is down, well guess, what? Those who have automobile business meetings are going to be down. We're at the mercy of whatever happens in every other sector.

The growth of inbound international travel has steadily declined. How does that affect meetings?

One of the things that concerns me is international business. I think the international audience is so important to many events, and we're losing share of international travelers. We're not going down in visitor numbers -- we're up about 2 percent, but the rest of the world is up 6 to 8 percent.

In 2015, we had a 13.7 percent share of all international travel. Last year we had 11.7 percent. It sounds not so bad -- 2 percent, what the heck? But that 2 represents 14 million visitors, $59 billion and 120,000 jobs. So, you just see how powerful this industry is if those numbers go just a little bit one way or the other. 

Why are those numbers declining?

Everyone wants to say, "It's gotta be the president." There's no question about it, that's a factor, but the biggest thing is a strong dollar. Our dollar is so strong -- and has been for several years -- that it's more expensive to get here. Other factors are a weaker economy and the proliferation of low-cost carriers all around the world. You can get to so many other places from Europe vs. coming to the U.S. And then the last piece is we don't have a welcoming message.

The other issue is getting people to come here. If they can't get a visa, if they can't come here, they're not going to be at an international show. 

The thing that concerns me most -- it's gone from number nine in my top 10 worries to number one or two -- is crime and safety. When something horrible happens, it's worldwide news, and people in China and other places are saying, "Is it safe to come here?" 

Let's talk about international trade issues. How do trade wars affect meetings?

Anything that has to do with trade is a problem. We've been watching this very carefully. Inbound travel from China was down 5 percent in the first quarter of this year and probably dropped about 5 percent more during the year, and that's out of 3.2 million Chinese visitors. If this thing keeps up it'll be a challenge. 

The great thing is, as of yesterday, it looks like the USMCA -- the new trade deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico -- is moving forward. It probably has to wait until the whole impeachment thing happens until it actually becomes official, but the USMCA, we predict, will add another $7 billion to our industry. If it hadn't passed, we were probably at risk of losing $5 billion. So, there was a $7 billion swing in this little thing that you might look at and say, "That doesn't affect us." 

Sustainability is a growing global concern, and with it "flight shaming" -- people are saying it's not responsible to travel.

Yes, that buzz is getting louder and louder. Every company's worrying about it. There's all sorts of research saying that people are not going to travel somewhere because of the environmental impact. The president of KLM -- can you believe this? -- got up on a TV spot and said, "We're canceling our board meeting." And he said, "If you don't have to make that trip, don't make it." I mean, can you imagine the head of an airline saying don't take that trip? But they're getting so much pressure in Europe; it hasn't quite come here yet, but it will.

Your mission is to promote tourism, but some destinations don't want more visitors. 

Overcrowding is a problem. You see it in Venice, you see it in Iceland, in Barcelona. People are saying, "I don't want those tourists," and "I don't want those people coming here for meetings." That's a concern. We're starting to see it in parts of the U.S.

A CVB director in the Hamptons went to a town meeting, and she had all her research, and she said to residents, "Do you understand without these visitors, you'd pay another $1,100 per year in taxes?" They said, "Raise our taxes; get rid of the tourists." That's what we're facing. 

As destination marketers, we've got to strike the word "record" from our vocabulary. We all like to use that word. We talk about a record number of tourists in Orlando or a record number of meetings in Las Vegas. We've got start saying, "Because of what we do, there are 1,500 more teachers here in Savannah. Because of what we do, the police force has 30 percent more funding." We have to get people to understand that when people come here as tourists or for meetings, they're actually helping the city. 

In 10 months, Americans will need a Real ID or passport for travel. Can you explain what that means?

Take a look at your driver's license and make sure you have a gold star in the upper right-hand corner. If you don't have a gold star in that corner, you don't have what's called a Real ID, which will be required by law as of Oct. 1 of 2020.

On Oct. 1 anyone who doesn't have a driver's license with the gold star is not getting on a plane. Homeland security has been kicking the can down the road for 15 years. Now this law passed in 2005. But you know, the government is tricky, but they're saying honest this time it's going to happen. 

We predict that if we don't act aggressively as an industry to make sure people know Real ID, we're going to be in deep, deep trouble. Fifty-seven percent of Americans have no idea this is going on. To date, 90 million Americans don't have a real ID. 

The worst is going to be the first day. If we don't change this, 80,000 people are not going to get on a plane on that day. Think of it. You're having your meeting in October, and all of a sudden 4 or 5 percent of your people don't show up, and the hotel saying, "Hey, you've got to pay attrition." 

We're trying to mobilize the hospitality industry to give out notices about this at the front desk. When you show your license at check in, they should just say, "Loren, you need to get the new one. Here's a piece of paper. Check this out." It doesn't take time. TSA has to do that, but we're not moving fast enough. That is going to be a real problem for the meetings industry. 

We've seen organizations boycott travel or meetings to certain places based on controversial legislation. What's your take on that?

I am not in favor of boycotts based on social issues, not that I don't care what the social issue is. But we're seeing more and more groups saying, "I'll boycott that area. I won't go to North Carolina. I won't go to Texas." If you work for the California government, you can't go anywhere, because they banned travel to almost every state in the country for some issue. We've got to speak up and let people know that it really doesn't work

We haven't seen huge changes because someone's boycotted travel or boycotted having a meeting somewhere. But what it does hurt is the people who need the jobs the most. We employ one out of 10 Americans and the people who are out of a job when a boycott happens is not anyone in this room. It's the waiter. It's the front desk person. It's a housekeeper who absolutely needs that job to pay the rent next week. It's really important that we speak up and say, "You should find another way of getting your point across, because boycotts aren't working."

What about the good news? Is there any good news? 

Yeah, there's some good news! The Visa Waiver Program is expanding. When we started playing with Visa Waiver, 27 countries agreed that people could come here with just a passport -- you didn't have to have a visa. There are now 39. So, we've added 13 Visa Waiver countries in the past 10 years.

To give you an idea of why this is so important, when South Korea went in the Visa Waiver Program, 400,000 South Koreans came to the United States each year. Eighteen months later, 850,000 South Korean came to the United States. Last year, 2 million South Koreans came the United States. That's why it's so, so important.

We're working very hard to get Israel to be next, and we're close. It will probably be next year. The big prize is Brazil. If we can get Brazil into the Visa Waiver Program, we will have another million visitors right away.

Travel is a hassle. Is it going to get better? 

Yes, we're adding more pre-clearance in Canada and other places. What that means is, if you go to Ireland or you go to Canada, you're clearing customs over there before you come home. Then, as soon as you land in the U.S., you're done. You don't have to go through customs here. That's a huge plus.

The other thing that's very positive is biometrics. The U.S. was way behind in this, and now we're leading, and people are watching us. If you're in Atlanta, Miami or Dallas, you'll start seeing biometrics. What's going to happen -- I'm hoping three to five years from now -- is you won't have a TSA. You'll walk down a corridor and you'll be identified with facial recognition. It hits 99 points on your face, and within seconds it decides who you are. I've seen a demonstration. It's phenomenal.

Then they'll have it also as you're getting on the plane. It's going to speed everything up phenomenally.