Interview: Brand USA chief marketing officer Tom Garzilli

America is poised for the reopening of borders and the UK will be at the forefront of its restart plans, hears Robin Searle

When former President Trump closed US borders as a precaution against the growing threat of Covid-19, Brand USA chief marketing officer Tom Garzilli was on a business trip in Frankfurt.

As he flew back to the US in March 2020 and the marketing organisation’s team moved to work from home, he expected the hiatus to be brief and a return to the day job swift.

As time passed and the pandemic took hold, it became apparent there was to be no quick return to normality.

With travel on indefinite hold, Garzilli and other members of the Brand USA leadership team faced challenges not just to their remit – to promote and boost international visitor numbers – but to the organisation’s model which is reliant on funding from the Esta visa waiver scheme.

Speaking in London on his first international trip since that visit to Frankfurt, Garzilli says he is proud of the way Brand USA swiftly pivoted to a virtual existence and of a prudent approach to managing financial reserves which he believes leaves it well placed to capitalise on significant pent-up demand as the world reopens.

“From a consumer perspective we stopped proactive marketing to conserve dollars (at the start of the pandemic) – we would have liked to maintain that presence but it was a necessity,” he explains.

“Simultaneously, we realised we had even more responsibility to help our partners and stakeholders (in the US) whose business was decimated.

“If you are a city or state you had to start cutting (for financial reasons) and international teams didn’t have much of a role, so we needed to think about how to keep the lights on with our global trade partners.”

One answer was Brand USA’s Global Marketplace, a bespoke virtual platform which has allowed Brand USA to facilitate contact around the world, in addition to an increased focus on webinars which have allowed it to train “thousands” of travel agents despite the shutdown.

“We have been in a state of readiness for some time, but that hasn’t been our state of mind,” says Garzilli. “Now we feel like travel is poised to come back and we have evolved our business to be ready.”

Awaiting a restart

Garzilli admits a sense of restlessness with the delayed reopening of US borders following the emergence of the Delta variant but insists increasing vaccination rates will prompt an easing of restrictions.

And he says a growing realisation within the US of the importance of tourism to recovery, tied to the same acknowledgement from the Biden administration, leaves the US well set for the restart.

“A month ago, before the variant took hold, we were feeling confident (of an imminent reopening) and I am still confident because at some point the numbers are the numbers,” he says.

“If you look at those numbers (vaccination rates) you are getting to the stage where we can travel safely while retaining some precautions.

“I don’t know if that’s going to be later in the Fall but I am confident that people are going to be travelling going into 2022 and the pent-up demand is certainly there.”

He adds: “Because we were really careful over the past year we are going to be in a position to do everything we want to do with our trade partners and our re-entry on the consumer side will be very robust.

“We are also hopeful we will get a degree of support from the federal government. This administration is very well aware of the importance of international travel to economic recovery and is ready to invest in it.”

Garzilli says: “It has become evident how critical tourism is to every locale and every business large or small, regardless of whether they touch tourism directly.

“That awareness has led to a strong domestic return, and domestic layers up to international.”

 UK at ‘leading edge’

Spearheading that international return will be the UK, Garzilli believes, describing it as the “leading edge” of the European market. In 2019, the UK accounted for 4.8 million visitors to the US of a total of 14.4 million from Europe as a whole.

He also believes the travel trade will play an ever-more-important role as consumers look to book longer-length and more complex itineraries after having plans put on hold.

“Much as we look at other countries, we are going to follow the airline seats and the transatlantic routes are going to open up strongly,” he says.

“The UK will be among the first for consumer spend and it is already the first for trade.”

He adds: “From an international perspective, the tour operator and travel agent is far more important than in the US and we will be looking to do far more with our trade partners (as we reopen).

“We will be working much harder to ensure our multi-channel advertising has a localised call to action and we believe that many of the things we are doing with the Global Marketplace will free up budget for (US) partners to invest in their trade partnerships.”

“Everything we do ultimately drives business to the trade” he insists. “They are the tip of the spear, we have stayed connected with them and once we are ready to go we will do even more in partnership with them.”

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