In 1994, nearly one of every 10 people traveling worldwide were headed to the United States. By 2000, the U.S. share of inbound travel had dropped from 9 percent to 7 percent; 10 years later, it was at barely 6 percent. So why has America lost 30 percent of the worldwide travel market in less than 20 years?
“The world discovered meetings, conventions and events,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association (USTA). “They’re saying, ‘Come to China. Come to Dubai.’ Everyone’s competing with huge dollars. Why does a country with such great facilities not [have] their share of the global travel pie?”
Dow said it’s because government regulations have made the visa application process too cumbersome for anyone wanting to come here for work or play.
If a traveler from China or Brazil, for example, wants to come to the United States, he or she has to wait up to 150 days for a three-minute interview, which must be completed before a visa application can be submitted.
“People have to begin applying for their visas three to four months [in advance],” Dow explained at the inaugural IMEX America. “You hope they have their application in time to go to [your] trade show.”
The USTA is working to get the global wait time for a U.S. visa down to 10 days or less, and to increase the number of visa waiver countries — countries whose citizens do not need visas for U.S. travel.
“South Korea was put in the visa waiver program in 2008,” Dow said. “The next year, visitation went up 48 percent.”
In addition to lobbying Washington to revise its visa application guidelines, the USTA spearheaded the Meetings Mean Business campaign, which fought media and government censure while reminding Americans that the meetings industry means $1.8 trillion to the U.S. economy and supports 14 million jobs.
“Because we have sexy events, people think we’re a frivolous industry,” Dow said. “One in nine Americans get their jobs out of this industry. You can’t export these jobs — the bellmen, the people who do setups — they have to be here. … We’re also a very fragile industry. … Who thought a volcano in Iceland would have disrupted travel?
“You just have to turn the faucet a little bit,” he said. “This industry is shovel-built.” And it’s one that offers hope to the 96 percent of America’s unemployed who don’t have a college degree.
“People can come into this industry without a degree,” Dow continued. “The average job in the U.S. pays $19. The average pay in the meetings industry is $17 an hour. Everyone in this room flipped a burger or took a ticket. But if you look around this room, no one is flipping a burger or taking a ticket anymore. You can’t do that in chemical engineering.”
The biggest threat to the meetings industry
Forget about government restrictions and bad press. Jeff Friedman, USTA’s executive vice president, said the biggest threat to the meetings industry is how inconvenient it is to travel.
“Consumers are demanding more and more ease, less burden, and our industry is going in the opposite direction,” Friedman explained. “The U.S. has five of the world’s 10 busiest airports, and none are in the Top 20 for customer service. Your car has better technology than your airplanes. Two-thirds of air travelers would travel more frequently if the TSA process could be more customer-friendly and just as secure. People are avoiding trips.
“On top of that, airlines have done the impossible,” he said. “They have beat out cable and personal-injury companies as the least popular industry. Is this an airline problem? When you look at things from a customer lens, this is a travel problem, a meetings problem.”
Companies intent on replacing the need for face-to-face meetings, like GoToMeeting.com, are capitalizing on that anti-travel sentiment, he said, He advocated travel and meeting industry professionals reverse the trend by doing three things:
- Think differently. Look at the travel/meeting experience from a customer’s viewpoint and work to make all the elements easier and friendlier. “The customer’s experience doesn’t start when they arrive at your doorstep,” Friedman said, “it begins when they leave theirs.”
- Act differently. Rather than dismiss issues as solely being a hotel, airline or rental car, etc., problem, Friedman encouraged meeting professionals to realize that anything affecting the travel/meetings industry is a problem for everyone in the industry. The attacks that the meetings industry weathered made it stronger, gave it a unified purpose and voice that it had never had before, Friedman said. “How do we act a little bit differently to affect change? Or are we going to allow the death by 1,000 cuts to continue?”
- Embrace change. Rather than put out research that conference calls are a waste of time, embrace the fact that everyone needs to make the customer experience better. “The change we’re going through is a good thing.”