In the travel industry, it's the unpredictable events that can be the most devastating — a massive hurricane, an act of terrorism, a political uprising. When Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, invited a few top editors from Northstar to have lunch in New York City, he expected to recount the year's accomplishments: 120 straight months of travel growth, expansion of the Visa Waiver Program, and other legislative strides by the government entity whose mission is to increase travel and tourism to and within the United States.
But in the weeks between the invitation and the gathering itself, the coronavirus took the world by surprise and changed the nature my conversation on Jan. 31 with Dow and Tori Barnes, U.S. Travel's executive vice president of public affairs and policy. Following are highlights from our discussion, which included Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief of Travel Weekly; and Sarah J.F. Braley, managing editor of Northstar Meetings Group.
How has the coronavirus affected what you do at U.S. Travel?
Dow: We're talking to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health daily. We're also working with the U.S. Chambers of Commerce to provide vital information to the traveling public.
How concerned are you about the impact of the coronavirus on travel?
Dow: What I worry about is people wondering whether it's safe to travel, period, rather than wondering, "Is it safe to travel to China?" I was watching TV the other day and a news bulletin came on saying that the U.S. government was warning people not to travel. What the reporter did not say is "to China." He left out two very important words. We really worry about misconception. That's the biggest risk there is.
Before the virus became a factor, were you anticipating a strong year ahead for the U.S. travel industry?
Dow: Yes. We've had 10 years of straight growth — 120 months of growth. Our projection for 2020 was for travel slowing down a little around the election, which is typical, but overall, we were expecting 2 to 3 percent growth in domestic travel. We were projecting international inbound travel to be half of 1 percent down or flat. Leisure is really driving the growth and group is pretty strong. We talk about business travel and meetings a lot, but leisure represents two-thirds of the travel business in the United States.
The Trump administration just expanded its travel ban to 6 more countries. Does this send an unwelcoming message to the world?
Dow: We've seen that people can separate politics and place. If you listen to the international media, their hair's on fire because of Trump. But people still want to visit the Grand Canyon.
Has U.S. Travel attempted to counter negative impressions that might result from the administration's words or actions?
Dow: What we've said to the president is that it would be helpful to have a welcoming message. Yes, we are going to have a strong security policy for keeping terrorists out of the country, but to everyone else we want to extend a very warm welcome.
People in the travel industry say their biggest worry is the thing they can't predict. Do you feel like that's playing out right now?
Dow: If you asked me a month ago, "What are you worried about?," I wouldn't have said, "people getting sick in China." This industry is fraught with problems you wouldn't ever think about. That's what we're dealing with.
Let's talk about a more pleasant topic: politics. Are you focused on what the candidates are saying right now?
Barnes: We're going to wait until the field of candidates narrows, and then we'll start listening. We will probably talk to the last handful of candidates before we get to the final nominee. We're a big proponent of getting our message across as early as possible.
How will the election affect your agenda?
Barnes: We will continue to push ahead with our policy agenda; that won't change regardless of who the candidates are or who the next president is. We work very closely with the White House Legislative Affairs team — and they get it.
Dow: What I would like to hear during the debates is a question like this: "Travel and tourism generates $2.5 trillion to the U.S. economy annually. What are you going to do to improve upon that?" I would like to see that happen, because it's that important.