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Interview: US travel leaders hail country’s ‘new beginning’

Pictured, left to right: Elliott Ferguson, Casandra Matej, Fred Dixon, Caroline Beteta, Adam Burke

Ahead of the reopening of America’s border, Robin Searle spoke to the chief executives tasked with rebooting travel to California, New York, Orlando, Los Angeles and Washington DC

The leaders of five of America’s biggest destination marketing organisations have spoken of their relief at the easing of international travel restrictions and explained how their respective cities and states are preparing to welcome UK visitors for the first time in 20 months.

The chief executives spoke to Travel Weekly at the opening of Brand USA’s Travel Week event in London and described their joy at hearing the news of the November 8 restart, and how the experience of dealing with the pandemic had brought the industry closer together.

Caroline Beteta, chief executive of Visit California, said: “It was absolute elation. This represents a new beginning. You have competitors who have never worked so closely together and this industry is really one of great collaboration.

“There is no competition in a crisis and we are all working together to provide a welcome mat back to the United States.”

Fred Dixon, chief executive of NYC & Company, added: “In moments like this you set all competition aside and the conversations between us and with Brand USA have never been stronger.”

Speaking about the leaders’ decision to come en-masse to London, Dixon said it reflected “the resolute nature of our commitment to the UK”, adding: “We should be here first, we are here first. It is a long road, there’s no question, but we think we are off to a good start and we have a tremendous opportunity.”

Adam Burke, chief executive of Discover Los Angeles, said the pandemic had raised the appreciation of the contribution of the travel sector to the US economy.

“Commerce secretary [Gina] Raimondo called it right when she said the return of international visitation was going to be one of the most critical factors to the national economic recovery in the States,” he said. “This is going to put a lot of people back to work on both sides of the Pond.”

Casandra Matej, chief executive of Visit Orlando, said the impact of the pandemic on travel and hospitality had been felt by most people in the US, and said there was a greater acknowledgement of the importance of tourism as a result.

Matej added that destination marketing organisation (DMOs) had pivoted their focus over the course of the past two years to work closely with communities and stakeholders on how to recover.

“We were working with healthcare professionals and our local municipalities and talking about what this new way of doing business looks like, and how can we maintain an open community for visitors to come and enjoy our destinations in a safe way,” she explained.

“We are still in the midst of it in many ways. There are new protocols that may never go away and we just have to learn and commit to those. Initially most destinations made the decisions to go dark with our messaging as it wasn’t appropriate at that time but we pivoted to working with our local community to ensure our destinations would be open and ready.”

Elliott Ferguson, chief executive of Destination DC, said Washington was ready for the return and agreed there was an even greater responsibility to work on behalf of stakeholders in the travel and tourism sector who had been hit hardest by the pandemic.

“A lot of stakeholders are relying on us and they are expecting the sell of the destination to attract visitors,” he said. “It’s all about communication and communicating what we are trying to accomplish as borders reopen and people start to come back to the US.”

He added: “We are ready for the return, with safety protocols in place. I anticipate we will see some momentum building as Europe opens up.”

Beteta said Visit California had pivoted to its in-state market, communicating messages about sustainable, responsible and safe travel closer to home. But she added: “It was a silver lining but it’s not enough without international visitors.”

Burke said Discover Los Angeles had continued to communicate with partners throughout the pandemic, including through its dedicated Europe office in London.

And he tipped the industry to bounce back faster than many expect.

“In terms of international, we never really stopped,” he said. “Our UK team continued to engage with the travel trade and carriers throughout as we wanted to be ready, and I think everyone’s going to be amazed to see it rebounding quicker than people are forecasting.

“People forget what an incredibly resilient industry we are. People talk about how long it will take to get to recovery and it will certainly be a slog to get all the way out of it but if you look back at every major business disruption over the past two decades, travel and tourism has always found a way to be resilient and come back quicker than people expected.”

Bullish outlook

Many of the chiefs said they were expecting a strong rebound from the UK and Irish markets as the love affair with the US was rekindled and travellers headed to familiar and established destinations.

“We are really bullish,” said Dixon. “We expect 750,000 Brits to come to New York next year. We were 1.3 million just before the pandemic in 2019, so we expect a strong rebound with more than half the market back, and our goal is to accelerate that.

“There is an opportunity for the east coast with pent-up demand as we are so close for a city break or a family break. With vaccination rates as high as they are, people understand that we are taking it seriously, particularly in the major destinations, and I think the US is well-placed to capitalise on that.”

Visit Orlando’s Matej said: “We’ve always worked with the airlines and we’ve been working even more diligently to ensure the seat capacity is back and that people can easily get to the US. We have been more engaged in that than ever.”

She added: “I don’t have projections but anecdotally the reservations for airlines are off the charts so we think central Florida is primed and we are anticipating big numbers. Pre-pandemic we would have been a little over a million so anything close to that, we would be elated.”

Burke said Los Angeles was expecting to receive a million additional international visitors in the remainder of this year, following the announcement of the border reopening and based on forecasts from Tourism Economics.

He also predicted a bumper year from the UK & Ireland in 2022, with more than 500,000 visitors outstripping the figure for 2019.

Beteta said California as a whole was predicting a return to 64% of pre-pandemic numbers from the UK & Ireland in 2022, rising to 90% in 2023.

She said: “We are pretty excited about lift, we have 72 flights spread across LA, San Francisco and San Diego and then British Airways direct to San Jose.

“We never really stopped and have been continuing the conversations to ensure not only that we have capacity but that we are also filling up those planes. We have 50 new hotels opening through California which is staggering.”

Burke said destinations had plenty to shout about to attract visitors as the border reopened, thanks to investment in attractions and tourism infrastructure.

“It has been an accelerant to some incredible capital investment,” he explained. “There is incredible new product and new attractions so there are many more demand drivers coming out of the pandemic than we had going into it.”

Future Trends

NYC & Company’s Dixon said his organisation had used the pandemic to take stock of its activity and increase its focus on celebrating and promoting the city’s diversity and the small businesses that rely on it to drive visitation.

He said the “jury was out” on whether visitors would embrace the concept of ‘slow travel’ and extended stays, but said he was confident they would be keen to immerse themselves in the destinations they visit.

“All of us have worked hard to make sure small businesses in the community see equal opportunities in the rebound. We need to ensure those businesses have the opportunity to survive and thrive as that diversity really makes our destination sing,” he said.

“We are all making sure there is diversity in our product. In New York we’ve launched a series of promotions and content hubs highlighting black-owned businesses, Latino-owned businesses and we’re getting ready to launch an Asian hub as well.

“We’re making sure those communities have equal opportunity and we’ve taken the last year to two years to look at how we are promoting the destination.”

He added: “This is an opportunity to reset and encourage people to go deeper. We would love people to extend their stays, perhaps with a twin-centre with somewhere else in the United States or if they stay longer with us we’d be very happy with that too.”

Burke agreed, saying: “People are looking for authentic experiences. In LA we have people from over 140 countries who speak 220 different languages and international visitation is part of making our communities what they are.”

Beteta said Visit California was committed to ensuring a more sustainable industry, whether through responsible travel or by celebrating and supporting communities. And she added that a sustainability plan developed prior to the pandemic would be a core pillar of its strategy for future recovery.

“We created a sustainability plan which was 90% there and quickly threw it on the shelf when Covid hit, but we then realised we really needed it as part of the Covid plan. It will be with us coming out of the Covid plan, for sure,” she said.

“I am passionate that we as competitors unite on the responsible travel message. Whether is it sustainability or DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) the important thing is that people are starting to be mindful of trying to make the community better.”

Destination DC’s Elliott Ferguson agreed a focus on diversity and inclusion was key, particularly as the US still had “work to do” to counter some negative perceptions elsewhere in the world.

“As we get beyond this pandemic, from a global perspective we still have a lot of work to do as a country with the perception of safety,” he said.

“We are still receiving questions regarding the state of the community in the US in terms of diversity and equity and inclusion. These are things that we are also concerned about and are also focusing on as we look at bringing folks back to the US.”

He added: “Every interview I’ve done, in addition to talking about the pandemic, I’m talking about how the US is perceived.

“The attractiveness of coming to the US still remains. However, we would be naïve if we weren’t looking at the bigger picture and focusing on things we were dealing with before the pandemic and will need to be focusing on after the pandemic.”

Importance of expertise

With just weeks to go before the restart, all the leaders said they had invested in trade relationships in the UK, reflecting the importance of agents and operators in steering customers through the new travel landscape.

And they said they were confident the experience of visiting the US with nuances in Covid protocols across states and cities would not be a deterrent.

Visit Orlando’s Matej said: “I like to stay ‘stay calm but play on’. There are protocols and they may differ destination to destination, but it is very similar to what I’m seeing here (in the UK). You’ll notice some things but they won’t inhibit what you can enjoy.”

She added: “We are ready to invest (in trade relationships). We did virtual webinars throughout the pandemic and we are relaunching our Orlando Travel Academy. The UK trade and market is incredibly important to us.”

Beteta confirmed Visit California had also used the pandemic to update its California Stars training programme and agreed that new protocols in place should be seen as a positive rather than a deterrent.

“British visitors aren’t going to see anything vastly different to what they are seeing here, and I think that’s a good thing, a reassuring thing,” she said. “The most important thing is the safety factor that people want to see and the discipline around that.

“So much has changed for the better and we need to have that partnership with the travel trade to bring it forward for their clients.”

Dixon said: “There is a real opportunity for the travel trade. Given the heightened protocols for travel and in terms of the safety net the travel trade provides, I think it’s an enormous boost in the arm for travel agents and tour operators coming out of this. It strengthens the focus for us on that audience.”

Burke concluded: “I think that what has happened over the past 20 months has seen the role of destination organisations and the travel trade elevated.

“People are looking for a trusted, centralised resource. They look to us for aspiration and information and they look to the travel trade to deliver on that promise.”

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