This article first published in the June 2023 State of the Industry Special Edition of Beyond the Meeting Room, ALHI’s printed magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication focused on sharing compelling, inspirational and educational stories from beyond the four walls of a meeting room.
Travel is a key driver to a healthy U.S. economy, according to a 2022 economic impact data report by the U.S. Travel Association, accounting for $1.2 trillion in direct spending in 2022, with business travel generating $255 billion in travel spending and supporting 1.3 million jobs.
But there are a variety of obstacles to sustaining and increasing those numbers, which is where the importance of an advocacy organization such as the U.S. Travel Association comes in.
“Our mission is to grow travel in the United States, and in doing that, it’s really critical that we establish travel as essential,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, Executive Vice President, Public Affairs and Policy at the U.S. Travel Association. “Everyone knows what happened during the pandemic and what it’s like when travel stops. We’re really focused on the economic importance and the impact that travel has on the broader economy and on communities across the country.”
One of the first initiatives that the association undertook after its founding in 2009 was to establish Brand USA, which markets the U.S. to global travelers worldwide, bringing in millions of additional international visitors each year. According to Brand USA, for every $1 spent on marketing, it adds $25 to the U.S. economy.
Also in 2009, the Meetings Mean Business Coalition was founded to advocate for the business events industry in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn.
“Our mission as a coalition is to ensure that the meetings and events and face-to-face industry continues to grow,” said Stephanie Glanzer, Chief Sales Officer and Senior Vice President at MGM Resorts International and co-chair of the coalition.
Glanzer notes that for every dollar spent in business travel, companies experience close to a $6 return in revenue. “It is a solid investment and one that should not be reduced or cut, which unfortunately has happened many times in the past 15 years, hence the reason for the creation of Meetings Mean Business. We’re here to ensure that policymakers and decision-makers know the impact it makes.”
Meetings Mean Business also supports Global Meetings Industry Day—March 30 this year— which organized 70 events in 35 countries this year and garnered 45 million impressions and 365 media mentions, reaching more than 10 million users.
$255 billion was spent on business travel in 2022, which helped to support 1.3 million jobs, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Geoff Freeman, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said the Biden administration has set a goal of welcoming 90 million international visitors and $280 billion in spending annually by 2027.
“To meet this goal, we need to be laser focused on removing barriers to international travel,” Freeman said during his comments at the recent IPW travel industry conference in San Antonio, Texas. “We need to be more urgent, more aggressive and more intentional than we’ve been in the past.”
In April, nearly 250 travel industry leaders from U.S. Travel member organizations participated in the association’s annual legislative fly-in Destination Capitol Hill, including meeting with 230 members of Congress and their offices to discuss the importance of travel to the economy, advocacy training and networking.
At the top of the U.S. Travel Association’s list of priorities is to lower visitor visa wait times.
“More than 40% of all travelers to the United States are required to get a visa. In our top visa-requiring markets, average interview wait times today are more than 500 days—simply unacceptable,” Freeman said. “U.S. Travel is leading the charge to address this issue. U.S. Travel launched an initiative called ‘They wait, we lose.’ We created a website, usvisadelays.com, and asked international travelers and U.S. businesses to share how wait times are affecting them.”
Barnes said: “If visa wait times don’t improve, we could lose as much as $7 billion in economic impact for 2023.”
Focus on Customs
Another critical issue that requires government focus is customs wait times, which are often too long, Freeman said. “Last month, international visitors at our top U.S. airports frequently experienced average wait times of more than one hour.”
The U.S. Travel Association is advocating for more money to hire U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and advocate for more pre-clearance locations to speed up the process. “There needs to be an air travel system that is welcoming and efficient,” Freeman said.
Other obstacles to growing U.S. travel include staffing issues.
“In the travel industry, domestically, we are 1.5 million workers short of what we need,” Barnes said.
U.S. Travel is working on providing H-2B cap relief, which would increase the number of nonimmigrant visas. Also, the association is focusing on the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2023, which would extend the consumer protections authorized in the 2018 act, including compensation for flight delays and cancellations.
One current success was the passage in December 2022 of the FY23 omnibus bill, establishing an assistant secretary of travel and tourism, which will be a presidentially appointed position confirmed by the U.S. Senate, with the aim of increasing international business travel and conventions.
“This puts us more on par with the other G20 countries, all of whom have a tourism minister,” Barnes said. “It’s critical that the United States government focuses more on the economic powerhouse that travel really is. The impact that we have on the broader business sectors is really important and often undervalued.”
An Advocate for Associations
Associations have their own advocacy organization, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), which highlights the importance of associations, said Mary Kate Cunningham, Senior Vice President of Public Policy at ASAE.
“You know what happens when Congress doesn’t understand that—we saw that in March of 2020, when associations were excluded from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the flagship program to keep organizations afloat during COVID,” Cunningham said. “That was due to a misperception about the role of associations. So, we had a huge effort where many countless associations helped us persuade Congress to open up the Paycheck Protection Program. And associations received over $600 million in those loans.”
Cunningham noted that ASAE used data from the association community to state their case, including statistics from the ASAE Research Foundation about the number of associations that expected to lose at least a quarter of their total budget, and were at risk of draining their reserves and possibly closing their doors.