November 8 is the anniversary of the U.S. opening its borders to international travelers. A year later, says Christopher Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, "the overall story is really positive."
Brand USA is the nation's public-private partnership dedicated to increasing international visitation to the U.S through marketing and promotional efforts. The recovery in international visitation, he said, is outpacing what prognosticators had anticipated.
Interviews with Thompson and the leaders of three major destination management organizations (DMOs) revealed an optimistic outlook going forward, but one that will require a lot of work in ensuring that travelers globally maintain their long-held interest in a holiday in the U.S. in the face of global headwinds like the strong dollar.
In 2019, Thompson said there were 80 million international visitors to the U.S., half from Canada and Mexico combined, which will remain the largest source markets. The United Kingdom and Europe, the next most important sources of travelers, said Thompson, are looking strong despite economic uncertainties.
Brand USA recently held its Travel Week U.K. and Europe marketplace event in Frankfurt, including meetings with travel trade and media, and the forecast there was that 2023 numbers would exceed those of 2019. That demonstrated, said Thompson, how strong the recovery has been and how resilient travel is. He said the excitement among buyers and suppliers in Europe at Travel Week was "palpable" - like nothing he has ever seen.
Tourism leaders "are well aware of the headwinds faced by the industry, not least of which are inflation, currency exchanges, the war in Ukraine and workforce issues," Thompson said. Countering all that, he said, is that the U.S. "is one of the most aspirational destinations in the world." He said demand is not a problem because pent-up demand is why the industry is seeing a faster return of travelers than had been thought. It was originally projected that it would take until 2025 to reach 2019 numbers but now he thinks it may happen in 2023.
What the U.S. has to offer, said Thompson, is its diversity in geography, experiences and in the people delivering those experiences to visitors. That appeal, he said, added to the fact that the pandemic has moved travel from "nice to do" to "need to do," "allows us to spread our wings and provide growth opportunities to many places within the U.S."
Brand USA, said Thompson, had been preparing for this upsurge throughout the pandemic. Once the border opened and flights restarted, he said, the organization was ready to go with a three-pronged approach:
- Prove we were ready
- Welcome the world back
- Entice and convert - working through travel trade partners to move customers from inspiration to consideration to booking
Multiple initiatives are underway from Brand USA, according to Thompson. One was a recent familiarization tour by major influencers from around the world visiting the U.S. to validate the fact that the country is open and welcoming. That supplemented an ongoing United Stories campaign that takes viewers on the road through the eyes of influencers, storytellers, and locals as they visit hidden gems, cultural meccas, attractions, events, and points of interest throughout the country.
In addition, Brand USA has added more content on its GoUSA TV channel, with more distribution than ever. It is the first connected TV channel established by a national DMO. It's available free and without a subscription and attracts viewers worldwide with original and curated content, documentaries and films about U.S. destinations and experiences.
The travel trade is key to all this, said Thompson, adding that a "mega-familiarization tour" is in the works with 60 U.K. travel professionals coming to the U.S. "to go out and validate that what everybody has been dreaming about is here."
One big message, said Thompson, is that within four or five hours drive of all major U.S. gateways are wonderful places to visit - including the great outdoors and rural areas. Brand USA, he said, works closely with DMOs on the local, state and regional levels to create "a co-op marketing machine" that opens many channels that enable travelers to reach the travel trade.
In addition, said Thompson, Brand USA Global Marketplace, a digital meeting and connection space created in reaction to the pandemic, continues to serve the industry well, giving the organization access to the travel trade in parts of the world where it might be difficult to appear in person.
Recently, Brand USA launched phase two of Global Marketplace: the International Pavilion, which includes in-depth market profiles, research, programming, and a directory for key contacts including the travel trade, media and more. It is meant to serve as the "go-to" for U.S. partners focused on marketing internationally.
Brand USA's podcast, "Brand USA Talks Travel," elevates the conversation concerning international travel to the U.S. by speaking with leaders in the industry. Through this podcast, Brand USA opens the organization's doors to dispense information, feature different campaigns and share some of the top storytelling efforts.
Brand USA's travel trade engagement strategies combine working with international teams in 10 market regions to ensure that the global travel trade communities have the content, resources and partnership needed to drive and propel visitation to the U.S. Effective tools to do this include: Brand USA's Travel Trade website; the USA Discovery Program, (Brand USA's online travel agent training program); virtual educational webinars and in-person agent trainings plus several product and itinerary development programs.
While Brand USA coordinates initiatives on a national level, local and regional DMOs are active in attracting international visitors - both for their own destinations and to get travelers to the U.S. Here is a look at how three major DMOs are doing so.
Orlando - Unbelievably Real
Orlando, which was already on an upward trajectory in 2021 because of domestic traffic, is doubling down in its effort to get the word out about the destination internationally, said Casandra Matej, CEO of Visit Orlando. Those efforts are critical, she said, because international visitors stay longer and spend more money. Orlando, she said, is getting close to 70% of its 2019 levels of international travelers which she calls "a really good number." She said the destination is anticipating full recovery by 2024 if not sooner.
One important factor in the recovery, said Matej, was the hosting this year of U.S. Travel Association's IPW marketplace which was a great way, said Matej, to launch Orlando's new global brand with the tagline "Unbelievably Real." The campaign was launched at IPW and is now ongoing in Europe, South America and Mexico. The destination is also adding emerging markets to see how they perform, including Peru and Chile.
With the dollar so strong, said Matej, destinations have to make sure visitors get value for their money and have easy access from their home countries. She said Orlando now has the seventh busiest airport in the world with seat capacity exceeding 2019 levels. The first priority is to be able to get to a destination, said Matej, "and we are considered a gateway to the U.S."
Matej said she agrees that the priority for all domestic DMOs is to get overseas travelers to the U.S. because the country is competing globally. Then her organization's job is to get them to Florida, then Orlando. Visit Orlando representatives, said Matej, are also getting back on the road - whether it's with Brand USA or with partners like Visit Florida, to attend key marketplaces.
In addition, Orlando is enhancing its travel trade relationships. At the beginning of 2022, the destination launched Orlando Travel Academy - offering increased in-person and online training with events in Toronto and Montreal coming up in December.
The message of Unbelievably Real is that Orlando is "a combination of the fantastical and the authentic. If you can imagine it," Matej said, "we can create it." And there is always something new in Orlando, said Matej. After recently celebrating Disney's 50th anniversary, more attractions are coming, including a new Universal Park called Epic Universe.
"We're not slowing down," said Matej. She noted that the Brightline will provide high-speed rail service from Miami to Orlando starting next year, which should generate even more sources of tourism traffic.
Los Angeles - Now Playing
In 2019, Los Angeles capped a decade straight of record growth for international visitors, according to Adam Burke, CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board (L.A. Tourism). The city had 31 million overnight guests that year, but 1 of 4 of them were from outside the country - and represented two-thirds of all overnight visitor spending. "There is no way to have a full recovery without an international recovery," said Burke.
And Los Angeles is on its way to a faster international comeback than anticipated. Next year the city expects to reach 84% of 2019 levels with markets like Canada and Mexico fully recovered. The recovery will be uneven with Europe and Asia at 75-85% of recovery with China taking longer. Before the pandemic, said Burke, Los Angeles was the first city to welcome more than 1 million Chinese guests in a single year.
One advantage for Los Angeles, said Burke, is that it is the only city in the U.S. with full-time offices outside the country. In fact, there are seven such offices and they were all maintained through the pandemic because, said Burke, "we were in it for the long game and knew international would come back. We wanted to be able to service the travel trade in those places."
During the pandemic, said Burke, the role of the travel advisor "was never more important" because of the need for up-to-date information. In the first year of the crisis, he said, L.A. Tourism moved from being a marketing organization to being a resource for the travel trade - keeping in touch in three stages:
- Stabilization - working with the trade to make sure they were up to date on protocols, reopening and what clients could expect when they arrived.
- Product knowledge - even through the pandemic there was a lot of change in Los Angeles - new attractions and hotels, and a massive renovation of the airport. The city has two programs for advisors - the L.A. Insider certification program and the Angels Academy in China. Over 30,000 travel advisors have been certified.
- Calls to action -- promotional campaigns were ramped up as soon as the borders were opened.
As a result of those efforts, said Burke, issues like the strength of the dollar have so far not had a significant impact. Also helping is the $15 billion redo of the airport, which is ahead of schedule because of low passenger volumes during the pandemic with 15 additional gates added already,
The biggest single issue right now, said Burke, is visa wait times and the city is working with Brand USA and other partners to get Congress to approve the Visitor Visa Waiver Time Reduction Act. People really want to come, said Burke, but sometimes have to wait more than a year to get a visa.
There have been pandemic-era changes in international travel patterns, said Burke, with even longer stays and a deeper dive into local neighborhoods. He said many travelers are staying three days in one neighborhood, then three days in another. The city's website offers three-day "micro-itineraries" that can be filtered regionally or by special interest like culinary, sports or arts and culture.
Los Angeles's appeal, said Burke, lies in its diverse and welcoming community with residents coming from over 140 countries and speaking more than 200 languages. As a result, visitors feel at home and welcome.
The city's marketing message has evolved from last year's campaign of "Your Comeback Starts Here" to "Now Playing." Burke said travelers were no longer thinking about recovery but wanted a different kind of message and "Now Playing" can be thought of in many ways - sports, music, Hollywood - "the fun of doing whatever you want."
And there is a lot more to do - with 11 professional sports teams, a very popular women's soccer club founded by actress Natalie Portman and a major arts project in south Los Angeles called Destination Crenshaw. South Los Angeles, said Burke, "is a great story about how tourism can elevate underserved communities." And, he said, Los Angeles now has more museums than any other city.
Brand USA, said Burke, has done "a phenomenal job." Its online efforts, he said, enabled the U.S. "to stay top of mind" and now those virtual resources are still in place.
New York - It's Time for New York City
Like its counterparts, New York saw a record-setting 66.6 million total visitors in 2019 with 13.5 million of them international. Significantly, according to Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company, the city's tourism arm, 20% of visitors from outside the country accounted for 50% of spending and 50% of hotel room nights as these visitors "punch above their weight."
Recovery is well underway, said Dixon, with a projected 56.4 million visitors in 2022, including 9 million international. The projection for 2023 is for almost 62 million visitors, with 10.9 million internationals. Dixon said the most recent week report saw hotel demand in New York reach 97% of pre-pandemic levels.
When the pandemic started, said Dixon, messaging in other countries pivoted to "NYC Misses You," which included extensive online content - Broadway shows, New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera performances, museum tours and more. "We wanted to keep the New York brand alive," said Dixon. Also during that time there was extensive work with the trade on training and educational seminars focusing on the city's rich multicultural heritage. The trade, he said, "was receptive and engaged."
A major turning point were the first flights from London to New York with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flying in at the same time with the travel trade, celebrities and regular travelers on board. They were greeted by Thompson, former U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow and others. There were three days of events for the visitors and media coverage of those activities kicked off strong sales for the 2021 holidays. All of that, said Dixon, laid the groundwork for 2022 and the message of "It's Time for New York City" - a campaign that has been relaunched several times.
International visitors, said Dixon, are coming to see traditional attractions and events like the US Open tennis tournament that broke records this year - and new ones like the soon-to-open Museum of Broadway. The holiday season promises to be robust.
NYC & Company representatives, said Dixon, have been hopscotching the globe, meeting representatives of overseas markets. "We're driving hard in all those markets," he said. He is being told everywhere, said Dixon, that consumers are prioritizing travel over other spending although they might spend a little less when they arrive because of inflation.
Travelers are also talking about sustainability and spending more on small and diverse businesses, said Dixon. The city has launched The Black Experience and The Latino Experience to help visitors enjoy those heritages and produced the Halal Guide to New York City for Muslim visitors, the first of its kind. "The big message," said Dixon, "is that all are welcome in New York."
Brand USA, said Dixon, "is the tip of the spear" for bringing back international tourism. He said NYC & Company is also working with New York State and that "everyone is pulling together in the right direction."
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