Roger Dow spent 34 years at Marriott before joining the U.S. Travel Association and becoming the nation’s biggest travel booster
It’s not every day that a U.S. president sits down to talk travel. So when Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, arrived at the White House on March 11, 2009, accompanied by Disney’s Jay Rasulo and Jonathan Tisch of Loews Hotels, a surprise was in store. “We thought we were there to meet with [top economic advisor] Larry Summers,” Dow tells Travel Agent as he settles into what marks his fifth year as head of U.S. Travel. Instead, they got President Obama. “We had our talking points down to seven minutes,” Dow says. “I was going to speak about how big the industry is, how it’s twice the size of the auto industry; Jay was going to talk about how hard it is to get international visitors into the U.S. and how that hurts the economy; and John was going to focus on meeting and conventions.”
As it turned out, they had a little bit more time to make their case. What was scheduled for 10 minutes ballooned into a half hour of dialogue between the travel executives and the leader of the free world about the importance of travel in relation to jobs and the economy.
“He’s engaged,” says Dow. Obama even offered a quasi-apology for the harm endured by hotels due to him and other government officials railing against such entities as AIG for holding meetings in posh resorts in light of the federal bailout. “He acknowledged that he was reacting to the pressure on the American people and the perceived profligacy,” Dow says.
The Travel Promotion Act
The meeting was almost a year to the day in March 2010 that Obama signed the Travel Promotion Act into law—his signature coming only a month after the bill was passed by Congress. In all, it took only three years from when the bill was first introduced to when it was enacted, “warp speed,” says Dow.
What the Travel Promotion Act sets out to do is clear: generate more international inbound visitors, which, in turn, will create more jobs and increase revenue for the U.S. economy. Some estimates say the law will help attract upward of 1.6 million new international visitors, $4 billion in new spending and more than $300 million in tax revenue each year.
It’s hard to believe that the U.S. never before had a campaign like this in place to better communicate America’s travel policies and welcome foreign visitors. “The U.S. has lost 37 percent of its share of global travelers,” Dow says. (For comparison, the U.S. welcomed 2.4 million fewer overseas visitors in 2009 than in 2000.) “If we can increase inbound overseas travel by 25 percent, that’s about $200 billion and 1.8 million jobs.” Twenty-five percent may sound aggressive, but that 25 percent bump would give the U.S. the same market share it had in 2000.
This also means making the process of visa procurement a less onerous task. The hope is to expand the Visa Waiver Program to include such countries as Brazil and Poland. Dow says he’s even pushed for videoconferencing as a means for expediting the visa process (the State Department has so far pooh-poohed that idea).
The Travel Promotion Act is also being funded privately and through a $10 fee on foreign travelers who do not already pay the $131 for a visa to enter the U.S. The fee will be collected once every two years.
Last, the Act sets up the Corporation for Travel Promotion, a board of 11 travel and tourism industry leaders, whose task will be to promote travel to the U.S. and improve the entry process so that visitors want to return. One of the 11 is Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of the California Travel & Tourism Commission. Beteta, who was the immediate past chair of U.S. Travel, says Dow was the linchpin in fast-tracking the Travel Promotion Act.
“He’s an outside-the-Beltway kind of guy, who doesn’t have a problem asking, ‘Why not, why can’t we move faster?’” Beteta says. “Roger is gregarious, intelligent and has the ability to bring parties together. What you have seen in five years is an organization that had no relevance inside the Beltway and then catapulted once Roger came in. He made travel relevant. I’ve never seen an organization move so quickly with such a groundswell of support.”
Five years after assuming his post, Dow is still working hard to get the word out on why travel matters. “My commitment was five years,” says Dow, who was with Marriott for 34 years before joining U.S. Travel. “I said, ‘The industry is so misunderstood and there is opportunity to fix that.’ Here I am on my sixth year.” (He has told the board that he will serve two more years.)
When Dow started, he thought it would be a great time to go out and be an ambassador for the industry. Then 2008/2009 came. “People said 9/11 created the perfect storm,” Dow says. “9/11 was partly cloudy and showers compared to 2009. You had an 18-month period of oil going back and forth between $50 and $150 per barrel; airlines had no idea what they were faced with; the economy was tanking; companies were cranking down on travel and meetings; then the volcano in Iceland happened and had a $7 billion negative effect; then the Gulf oil spill; it goes on and on. That was the most difficult time.”
But it also galvanized the industry, Dow says. “It pulled us together in a way I’ve never seen. It’s energized the industry to say, ‘Let’s get together.’”
Now that the industry is on the same page, the real work is prevailing on the international community to rethink the U.S. as a destination. It takes convincing because, as it stands now, many international travelers are wary of the country. This is at the heart of the launch of the Blueprint to Discover America, a three-pronged approach toward making travel to the U.S. safe and friendly.
“People need professional information and the travel agents’ role is to find ways to show opportunity and value.”
“There is a feeling around the world that the custom process is degrading and that the custom officers are rude and arrogant,” Dow says. “There is some validity to that and what happens is that visitors’ first impression is distorted.” Dow says he is lobbying to add more custom officers and that hotel companies Marriott and Hilton have even offered to supply training.
Second, obtaining a visa is a problem. As it stands now, wait times to get a visa to the U.S. in most countries is considerable. (Dow says, in China, for example, it can sometimes take as long as 100 days just to get a visa interview.) Dow is also pushing to increase the number of visa-waiver countries, a move, he says, that could add millions of new visitors.
The third problem, Dow says, is the U.S. doesn’t promote itself like other countries do. “When competitive countries spend $50 million to $150 million per year, guess what, people go there.”
While the goal is to increase inbound international traffic, U.S. Travel has not lost focus on domestic travel. In fact, Dow says domestic travel is more important than international travel. “The total travel industry is a $704 billion business,” he says. “Of that, international accounts for about $100 billion—the rest is domestic. We have it all here.”
However, it’s the airport experience that has some staying home. “We did research that said 41 million travelers cancelled an airline trip because it was a hassle,” Dow says. “It doesn’t have to be that way.” He scoffs at the current state of security in airports as it pertains to time matters and intrusiveness. “There is no reason to take an old man with a walker and body-scan him—it’s crazy,” Dow says. “There’s a better way and we’re going to push it.”
U.S. Travel is also touting travel agents. “Their role is huge,” Dow says. With that in mind, the association, through www.discoveramerica.com—the official travel and tourism website of the U.S.—gives all travel agencies free listings, where they can place their own information and packages. “For the past 20 years, I’ve read stories about the demise of the agent,” Dow says. “And every year commissions went up. It’s not happening. People need professional information and the agents’ role is to find ways to show opportunities and value. Agents who provide value in their niche are here to stay; those who are order-takers won’t be.”
Why Travel Matters
As long as Dow is in charge of U.S. Travel, he is going to continue to make the case for why travel matters. “People don’t look at travel as something that is necessary,” he says. “What they don’t realize is that it’s also about education and health. People are scared to leave their desks and are stressed out—we have to remove that.” He cites figures that say people who get away two weeks a year cut down their chance of a heart attack by 20 percent.
Travel is also important for kids. “I am absolutely convinced that if children travel they’ll be more curious and exposed to more things,” Dow says. “It also helps hold families together. If I ask my kids what they remember most from before the age of 10, they are going to say either going to the beach or going skiing. Travel builds memories.”