Newsmaker Q&A: Boutique Hotelier Is Big Industry Promoter -- and Defender

MeetingNews speaks with Loews Hotels' Chairman and CEO Jonathan Tisch about hotel marketing and about the state of the travel industry at large.

Though he's been with a relatively small hotel company—Loews Hotels—for many years, Jonathan Tisch is no shrinking violet. He launched and then oversaw the Travel Business Roundtable, a lobbying concern, for 15 years and is now chairman emeritus of the U.S. Travel Association (which the TBR was folded into); he has served as chairman of NYC & Co., the Big Apple's tourism bureau; and, as chairman and CEO of Loews, he has made big inroads into a sea of household names.

The successful results of his efforts make his work look easy, but, in fact, it takes a smart approach and a lot of elbow grease. That effort was justly recognized last month by Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International at its Adrian Awards ceremony in New York, when the trade group gave Tisch the Albert E. Koehl Award for advertising.

For anyone who had any doubt that Tisch was deserving, he proved it during his acceptance of the award: He showed a whimsical video of himself being interviewed ... by himself.

During the course of the "interview," he showed his appearance on a reality show, where he performed the tasks of many Loews hotels employees, and a video from the past where he appeared in drag while promoting the company.

MeetingNews talked with all sides of the man about the future of Loews, and of the industry.

Q: Why is creativity in advertising and marketing important to you?

Creativity is very important to us at Loews. Being fairly small—when you stack us up against other brands—we have to find unique ways to promote our brand and let travelers know that we exist.

Q: In your acceptance speech, you said that because of the freedoms that have developed in various countries, some people are going to be traveling for the first time. What is Loews—and the industry—doing in preparation for that?

At Loews, we have properties in the United States and Canada, so we're continuing to work with convention and visitors bureaus and other hotels in our markets to promote the destinations.

As for the industry, the U.S. Travel Association is putting its effort behind the Travel Promotion Act, which calls for funding and resources to promote the United States as a travel destination, both in countries where first-time travelers are coming from and those from which we have a long history of visitors.

When you look at the challenges facing Barack Obama's administration, two can be dealt with through travel.

On the economy, it's been proven that the international traveler stays longer and spends more.

And on the issue of diplomacy, after foreign visitors leave the United States, they have a better impression than before they came. So those travelers can help us overcome the negative image of the U.S. that the president and secretary of state Hillary Clinton are battling abroad.

Q: In your speech, you also encouraged your peers to promote the industry as one that provides job opportunities and chances for careers. What steps should the industry be taking to accomplish this?

Travel and tourism offer an enormous opportunity to workers, many of whom are in the country legally for the first time. My sense is that the industry has always understood itself as poised to create jobs, but historically, our elected officials—in Washington, DC, and elsewhere—haven't understood the value of our industry.

When you walk into a congressional member's office and say that we have more employees in our industry than there are workers in manufacturing, that gets their attention. There are 17 million people making a living in the travel industry, either directly or indirectly.

So we have to keep promoting our value as an industry, because the more travelers come in, the more jobs it creates.

Q: You spoke of the students of the industry as the future. What promise are you seeing?

There's been growth of travel and hospitality programs. Students today are interested not just in hospitality but in tourism. Many of them are already at the best hotels.

Q: What are the next steps for both the travel and the meetings/convention industries, in order for them to gain the respect they deserve?

We are certainly living in a moment where our industry is under stress, from the economy and from a number of other areas.

My hope is that meeting planners, CEOs of corporations, and association executives will understand the importance of travel, why people must meet outside of the office, and that we need the economic benefit of travel.

Q: Some negative attention has started to come to the industry about lavish incentive programs planned for financial companies that are receiving bailout packages as well as laying off staff. What do you say in response to this coverage?

The press has taken this up as a cause celebre, and I am extremely concerned about the negative impression that's starting to permeate this industry.

As an industry, we have to continue to express why meetings are important for organizations; for hotels, convention centers, and attractions; and for the economy.

Originally published Feb. 16, 2009