The evolving crisis from the Gulf Coast oil spill will be an unprecedented challenge for the travel industry, especially the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, Stephen Richer, public affairs advocate for the National Tour Association (NTA), believes.
“The full impact of the crisis has yet to be felt, but the economic impact on travel and tourism— all the destinations bordering the Gulf— could be disastrous if the public over reacts to the drum beat of bad news,” Richer said. “City and state convention bureaus are justly concerned along with government agencies.”
For Richer, the Gulf crisis has a special meaning. Now the public affairs advocate for the NTA, Richer retired in 2007 from the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, where he served as executive director. He was deeply involved in both marketing and recovery from Hurricane Katrina, another crisis that devastated the Gulf region.
“The NTA will do everything it can to help and I anticipate several NTA initiatives,” he said “Many of our members in the region are friends and associates and I share their anxieties. To date they are doing a good job of communicating with consumers online. One fear: cancellations both of leisure and business travel.”
Richer, based in Alexandria, VA to provide virtual daily access to Congress and federal agencies, directs the NTA’s many government and legislative relations initiatives. He works closely with former Congressman and NTA Legislative Counsel Jim Santini. “I suspect that Congress will be very active in considering legislation that will help the Gulf Coast recover,” Richer said.
In an interview with Travel Agent, Richer said that he expected a tough year ahead in realizing the NTA’s legislative relations priorities. “One positive sign is that the [Obama] Administration and Congress are more aware of the often overlooked economic contribution that the travel and tourism industry offers,” he said.
One indication of this is the passage of the Travel Promotion Act that will encourage more travel to the U.S. The NTA and other major travel associations supported the legislation that was spearheaded by the U.S. Travel Association.
Another plus is the strength of the Travel and Tourism Caucus in Congress, headed on the House side by Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). “The caucus makes few headlines but its members are very supportive of the industry,” said Richer. “They are aware of the economic benefits of travel and see its ability to help economic recovery.”
Richer is also optimistic on Congressional action on the Travel Regional Investment Partnership that would provide a $10 million matching grant for destination marketing throughout the U.S. “This could greatly assist U.S. cities, states and regions to build inbound travel to the U.S.,” he said.
Cuba & China
Cuba is a top priority for the NTA as it is for the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA). Richer said that a recent meeting with Cuban officials in Mexico was very encouraging and that Cuba wanted an opening to travel. “Congress has a crowded agenda but we hope for action this year or early next year,” Richer said. “Opening up Cuba as a destination will help the industry recover from the recession and offer new marketing opportunities for NTA tour operators.”
Another success cited by Richer is the NTA’s role in building travel to the U.S. from China. “This is a huge market with real growth potential,” he said. Working with the Department of Commerce, the NTA is opening an office open in Shanghai and a liaison in the NTA’ s headquarters in Lexington, KY.
“The NTA has taken a proactive role in supporting legislation that will support our members by encouraging inbound (to the U.S,) and outbound travel from the U.S.,” he said. “This helps the NTA’s tour operator members, our destination management members and industry suppliers.”
Overall, NTA members move about 12 million passengers a year. Richer sees the NTA with a central role in shaping the future of the travel industry. But a challenging one. Today, the NTA's government relations activities include monitoring complex security issues that impact travelers, as well as state and federal legislation and regulatory issues affecting the travel and tourism industry.
“The NTA’s goal is to help members build their business— whether that is encouraging outbound travel, inbound travel to North America or within North America,” he said. “We want to open new marketing and sales opportunities for the industry.”
A key component of the NTA’s program is building viable partnerships with other associations and destinations. This includes American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the U.S. Travel Association, and many more including the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA).
Richer also notes NTA’s strategic partnership with Indian and African tour operators associations. The NTA annual conference was shared with the World Religious Travel Association, a major market for agents and tour operators. The NTA also works closely with the National Parks Service to encourage travel.
In the year ahead, Richer sees a crowded agenda in Congress, compounded by changes in leadership due to retirements and the unknown results of the 2010 mid term elections.
“The issues to be addressed are complex— from parks fees to ease of border crossing and security and tax policies— the problems are many,” he said. “And gaining congressional support for any program is also difficult. The big plus is that the NTA has a great staff headed by NTA President Lisa Simon, and strong volunteer leaders such as Catherine Greteman our chairman and CEO. We also have great continuing support from NTA members who are very supportive of our legislative agenda. Our members – tour operators, destination managers and suppliers – are alert to problems and responsive. We quickly opposed the proposed recent boycott of travel to Arizona, for example.”
Richer has decades of experience in the industry, including the destination side. He served as New Jersey's first director of tourism, the first executive director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism , and president of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Bureau. Richer also knows politics from the inside out: he was the mayor and councilman of Randolph Township in New Jersey, from 1974–80.
Among other achievements of special interest in view of the Gulf oil spill, Richer is a member of the Mississippi Tourism Hall of Fame and received one of the 2006 Mississippi Gulf Coast Community Leader of the Year Awards.
“Our legislative program has expanded in the past decade— as they have for most associations— with the expansion of federal government and the states and we have had to prioritize our efforts,” he said. “Some issues such as security and border crossings are relatively new but others seem timeless such as hotel occupancy taxes. Also the NTA itself has grown with members in 40 countries. We have also reorganized our grass roots Action Network.”
New data from the NTA underscores Richer's key points. NTA membership consists of 1,500 qualified tour operators, 600 destinations and 1,500 tour suppliers, including hotels, attractions, cruise lines museums and more. Most tour operator members are small businesses— 44 percent range from $1-5 million and 29 percent less than $1 million in annual sales.
“The diversity of markets, products and distribution channels makes a vigorous legislative relations program essential – that’s not going to change anytime soon,” Richer said.