Last updated: 05:00 PM ET, Tue March 17 2015

Five Years In, Brand USA is Bringing Home the Bacon

Destination & Tourism | James Ruggia | March 17, 2015

Five Years In, Brand USA is Bringing Home the Bacon

PHOTO: Brand USA’s Senior Vice President Global Partner Marketing, Tom Garzilli. (Courtesy of Brand USA)

In 2014, the United States welcomed a record 75 million international visitors according to a Department of Commerce announcement last week. A growth of 7 percent in visitors over the previous year is always impressive, especially when your currency is as robust as the dollar is right now. A strong dollar is a barrier to inbound tourism and yet U.S. inbound travel is thriving. Jonathon Zuk, the chairman of the Receptive Services of Association of America got it right when he singled out Brand USA for stimulating demand for travel to the United States.

Launched as part of the Travel Promotion Act of 2010, Brand USA is celebrating its fifth Anniversary this year. No American taxes are used to support the activities of Brand USA. The funding comes from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Those travelers who live in the 38 visa waiver countries pay a $14 fee every two years and Brand USA gets $10 of that $14. That contribution creates a $100 million fund. Brand USA can only tap that fund by raising matching funds from stakeholders. Whatever funds are raised beyond $100 million goes to deficit reduction.

At the ITB in Berlin, Brand USA was making headlines with its 2015 MegaFam campaign that, for the third straight year, would bring some 100 international agents to the U.S. This year’s group will come from the U.K. and Ireland and they will visit 22 different states on seven itineraries: California-Arizona; Utah, Wyoming and Arizona; Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama; Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma; Tennessee and Kentucky; Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan; and Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. The FAM will conclude in Philadelphia with a gala dinner and party for all of the travelers. American Airlines and British Airways are the partner sponsors for the FAM. Participating agents needed to pass a Brand USA training course.

Another signature Brand USA promotion is the recent “Great American Food Stories," a culinary online guide which breaks out U.S. regions featuring recipes, food stories, festivals and well-known chefs. The site highlights food trails on an interactive map, such as the Texas BBQ Trail (Austin to San Antonio) and a Craft Beer Trail (Montana to Arizona).

In Berlin at the ITB, TravelPulse caught up with Brand USA’s Senior Vice President Global Partner Marketing, Tom Garzilli.

TravelPulse: Begun as an Obama administration initiative, how does Brand USA manage to get bipartisan support in our chronically divided government?

Tom Garzilli: There are no American taxes being used to fund the program and obviously that was a big help in getting bi-partisan support and remember every 33 tourists that visits the U.S. create a job. Everybody likes job creation.

We’re a public-private partnership. We have more than 400 partners who are putting up about $130 million a year. Our critical stakeholders are the hotels but we also have CVBs, airlines, attractions and destination marketing organizations. We also have a lot of retail shopping partners such as malls.

TP: In only five years you’re already enjoying success?

TG: We had to begin from scratch. In the first five years even as we’ve been building our agency, we have been marketing aggressively. We had to do a lot of outreach in the U.S. travel industry. The U.S. Travel Association has done a lot to get the word out about what we do. We really count on them. The fact that we exist is largely because we have had such a healthy exchange with the industry. There’s been a lot of education.

TP: Some feel that the U.S. doesn’t need a federal government tourism agency. They’d argue that regional destinations can market themselves and that Hollywood is a self-sustaining industry that promotes America abroad.

TG: Between 2000 and 2010 global travel grew by 16 percent per year, and the U.S. didn’t keep up with that rate of growth. We call it the “Lost Decade,” but now we’re turning it around. While the work we do may help such governmental concerns as the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce and even the State Department, our focus is on being a marketing arm for our partners. At this stage we are fully deployed in 14 different countries around the world and are marketing in 33 more.

We have come up against many misperceptions of the U.S., which is only natural because it’s a vast country with many different identities as you move region by region. That’s one of the values in running the MegaFam, bringing so many tour operators and travel agents in from other countries. It’s having an impact in terms of education for both travel industry people abroad and travelers.

TP: Brand USA must encounter conflicts between the needs of the biggest destinations like Las Vegas, Orlando and New York and the needs of the emerging smaller destinations.

TG: The biggest markets for our services are the smaller, emerging destinations. They’re the ones that are really counting on us. But in boosting the small destinations it helps the large destinations. It lengthens trips and it’s good for the big gateways as well.

TP: The U.S. is a diverse country and the different countries you’re marketing in come with different tastes and perceptions how do you manage that challenge?

TG: We are trying to do more to learn about what these different kinds of travelers look for in travel. We do a lot of research internationally and there’s a lot of existing knowledge about foreign markets in the U.S. travel industry. In the Southwest, for instance, there’s a good understanding of how to host the Latin American traveler. We are learning from their experience. 

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