Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Solution in Search of a Problem?

On May 25, former Best Western and Hyatt Hotels executive Jim Evans became the first CEO of the newly created Corporation for Travel Promotion. Evans marked his arrival in his new job by addressing International Pow Wow in San Francisco, outlining how the new entity plans to sell the United States as a red-hot travel destination.

The very next day - May 26 - 400 miles down the Pacific coast in Los Angeles, some 2,000 elderly British cruise ship passengers were detained and searched for up to seven hours by U.S. Immigration officers as the travelers arrived in port for a short visit to L.A.

The L.A. incident, which sparked widespread media coverage in the United Kingdom, is one example of just how tough a challenge Evans and the CTP have ahead of them. Actually, the U.S. is already a hot travel destination: business and leisure travelers venture to the U.S. by the millions, generating jobs and pumping money into the still-anemic economy. However, since the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, the country has lost market share to other popular international travel destinations, such as China, France, Spain, Italy and the UK.

Restoring and expanding market share is Evans's job. Funded by a $10 fee paid by every international visitor from visa-waiver countries - to be matched by hoped-for private donations from the business community - the CTP plans to launch a major marketing inititive in traditional sources of travel to the U.S. such as Britain, Germany and Japan and emerging markets.

Good luck with that. Americans have an almost mystical faith in the power of marketing - we believe we're a nation of super-salesmen - matched only by our faith in technology and gadgets to solve problems. But here we may be barking up the wrong tree. National organizations such as the U.S. Travel Association, major hotels and resorts, states, cities and industry players such as airlines and tour operators already market the U.S. hard. Adding one more voice could only add to the noise. The new public-private CTP may be a solution in search of a problem.

The cause of softening travel demand to the U.S. isn't poor marketing, it's poor policy. It's the tight visa restrictions on people from countries such as the aforementioned China, India and Brazil. It's the understandably crucial and necessary airport security in the U.S. - the only country attacked on a large scale with hijacked aircraft - that while necessary, is often not done smartly or kindly. The seven-hour search of British pensioners in L.A. is just one example. The long lines, harsh voices of security screeners and seemingly arbitrary decisions in the security queue go a long way to negate pretty photographs, snappy tag lines and the travel industry's eager embrace of social-media campaigns.

In short, it isn't the marketing. To tweak on old line from the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign: It's the policy, stupid.

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