The boss of America’s marketing organisation talks to Robin Searle about plans for the future and confidence in the UK market
The countdown may have begun to Brand USA chief executive Chris Thompson’s retirement in May next year, but the leader of the country’s national marketing organisation is certainly not winding down.
Speaking in the run-up to Brand USA Travel Week in London this week, Thompson remains as optimistic as ever on prospects for a recovery of inbound visitor numbers – and the UK market in particular.
“We have always been bullish on the UK as a major part of the recovery and it has lived up to that,” he says.
“The main headwinds are economic, certainly around inflation, but there has never been a demand issue and the research shows we remain the most aspirational destination for the UK market.
“The UK is never going to outperform Canada and Mexico as we share a border and that proximity is tough to overcome, but it is certainly the major market that is on track to recover the quickest and that gives us the confidence to overcome some of those headwinds.”
Official forecasts released last year predicted 3.8 million UK visitors would cross the Atlantic this year, a figure Thompson is confident of achieving with 2.5 million arrivals recorded between January and August.
With 4.5 million visitors predicted for 2024, he is also optimistic that a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels will be achieved by early 2025, adding: “Every time we get on top of things there are other factors that make it more challenging, but even with those I still think we will outperform the forecasts.”
One of the main factors underpinning this confidence is the rapid return of air capacity following the reopening of borders, with further opportunity to reinstate pre-pandemic services to established gateways and develop new routes.
Thompson says this not only reflects carriers’ confidence in demand, but also plays to Brand USA’s desire to showcase the country beyond its main entry points and demonstrate the value that allows travellers to counter budget pressures.
“I don’t know that we’ll get to 100% (of pre-pandemic) capacity by the end of this year, but we’re going to be pretty darn close,” he says.
“The former service that’s been brought back and the new services that are opening to some brand new destinations are really encouraging. There hasn’t been a more compelling statement of demand than the speed with which those services returned.”
“The value proposition the US can offer, the diversity of product to allow you to adjust your plans and still travel, is the biggest selling point we have,” he adds. “We continue to demonstrate the proximity of these incredible experiences within easy distance of our key gateways and the new ones that are opening up.”
Amplifying the message
Thompson announced in July that he will stand down after 12 years at the helm on May 31, 2024, but before that will unveil the organisation’s latest brand campaign at the IPW conference in Los Angeles.
He says this acceleration of activity and evolution of the tools Brand USA offers partners will be key to its progress under his successor, with $250 million of government funding secured in March last year allowing it to “get back to market in more compelling, powerful and quicker ways” than would otherwise have been possible.
“We had a brand campaign when I first got here and since then we’ve had consumer campaigns but we’ve not really done a comprehensive review of brand and strategy and we’re in the middle of that right now,” he explains.
“We plan to reveal that at IPW in Los Angeles (in May 2024), and that will be one of the biggest things for us in how we are going to show up with our messaging to consumers around the world.”
Before that, the organisation has created the next iteration of its ‘This is Where It’s At’ campaign, titled ‘Experience it All’, with a focus on how visitors feel when they are in the US and the desire to create an “an emotional resonance with travel” to the States.
It is also increasing its focus on partnerships, including with luxury outdoor cinema specialist Luna Cinema and with garden shows including Hampton Court, where it created an award-winning show garden.
Thompson said other focuses include anniversaries such as the 250th anniversary of the US and the 100th anniversary of Route 66 in 2026, and sporting connections including promotions around the next football World Cup in north America, also in 2026, and the Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028.
Brand USA also secured a partnership with the NFL last month which saw it become the league’s lead partner in the UK & Ireland.
In addition to consumer campaigns and activity, Thompson says Brand USA remains fully committed to enhancing its trade relations, with its USA Discovery Program online training due to be extended to mobile devices next year.
He adds the need to develop new trade partnerships and tools remains pivotal, with the UK market used as a testbed for new activities.
“In the UK the relationship with the travel trade is as strong as it’s ever been,” he says. “The trade has gone through an evolution over the years but even in an established market like the UK it remains a tremendous resource and asset to our ability to speak to the diversity of our experiences.
“I think we are doing a good job of making our training more immersive and compelling and we are working really hard to ensure the UK travel trade has the tools to tell our stories.”
On the development of the mobile training, he adds: “I think the team has done a great job of continuing to evolve that product. It will make access to the programme much easier and allow [agents] to utilise those resources in the most effective way.”
Past and future
Looking back over a 40-year career developing tourism outreach for the city of Tallahassee, Visit Florida and Brand USA, Thompson says he feels fortunate to have been involved in the development of “three start-ups”, adding his career has “given him opportunities he could not have imagined coming out of school”.
He also pays tribute to the “great leaders and mentors” who have guided his career and says he has been driven by a desire “to attract the best and brightest talent” to ensure he leaves Brand USA in the strongest possible position for the future.
“I am really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he adds. “Start-ups are always unpredictable and messy, and I think the first couple of years (at Brand USA) were a little more difficult than I thought, but in the following six years leading up to Covid, the pace of accomplishment and evolution was quicker than I could have imagined.
“While Covid knocked us back, it didn’t tear into the core of what we were as an organisation.”
Looking to the future, he identifies sustainability and the growth of artificial intelligence as two areas in which the industry will need to adapt and evolve, but remains as bullish about the long-term prospects for the travel industry as he is about its short-term outlook.
“Even with inflationary pressures challenging our discretionary spending, we are choosing travel over other things because it’s that important to us,” he says. “I’m not blind to the challenges but I am sure the power of travel will allow us to face any of them.
“I think people realise for their own personal wellbeing, travel makes you a better person, allows you to grow and appreciate different things. As crazy and divided as our world is at times right now, travel is one of the things that mitigates that.
“Travel has the ability to transcend these headwinds.”
Brand USA Travel Week takes place in London this week.