Newsmaker Q+A with Geoff Freeman, Executive Director of the Discover America Partnership

MEETING NEWS July 16, 2007 Q What is the main issue that Discover America Partnership concerns itself with?
A Geoff Freeman, executive director: The Partnership is focused on improving overseas inbound travel, which is declining. Travel has been, for many years, one of America’s leading exports, but it simply has never been valued within the country, on the national level, the way it is in other countries, where it is seen as something critical to a nation’s success. For whatever reason, we in the U.S. do not see it that way.

Q What do you think is responsible for the decline?
A The entry experience, according to our survey of 2,000 inbound overseas travelers, is the world’s worst. And in the process of building our Blueprint to Discover America, we learned that at 19 of the top 20 inbound airports, U.S. Customs and Border [Protection] functions are understaffed. People are waiting in three-hour lines to get through the process.

This decline has immense consequences for our global competitiveness. Look at the trade balance: In 1996, the U.S. had a positive trade balance of $26 billion in travel; in 2005—just nine years later—that balance had fallen to $7 billion. Our estimates show that, based on the 17-percent decline in inbound overseas travel, the U.S., since 9/11, has lost about $94 billion in visitor spending, 194,000 jobs, and $16 billion in tax revenue.

Q Can you tell how much of the decrease is related to the meetings and conventions sector?
A It’s often an anecdotal story. Any one of your readers has spoken of or been told the horror story of the meeting that used to come to the U.S. that’s now going overseas—that’s what the U.S. Olympic Committee, which is trying to win the 2016 Olympics for Chicago, is running into. But a story that isn’t getting a lot of attention—which I’ve heard from ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and other U.S.-based multinational companies—is that they are moving major meetings outside the U.S. because they can’t get their own employees into the country! It’s easier to take their American employees [somewhere] outside the U.S.

Q Speaking of Americans traveling abroad, what perspective can the Partnership give on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) and the extended passport deadlines?
A The passport debacle is a microcosm of what overseas inbound travelers are confronting every day—poor communications, inadequate use of technology, and immense inefficiencies in the travel process. But since most Americans don’t have a passport and aren’t traveling abroad, it’s difficult for themto appreciate the benefits of welcoming more visitors and making that process as efficient as possible. For example, for an Indian businessperson to come over and look at buying a certain product, the wait to get a visa interview is 100 days. In the intervening 100 days, the same buyer could go back and forth to South Korea three times and sign a purchase order.

Q How does the Partnership propose the U.S. solve these problems, while maintaining high levels of security?
A The Partnership has put out a three-point Travel Promotion Act to fix the travel process. One of the things we’ve proposed is using videoconferencing to interview potential travelers before they come here.
Each point has many specific tactical things that need to be done. Everything that we’ve recommended is now in play in Congress. Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security [who has joined the Partnership to promote visa reform], always makes this point: Homeland security is not about eliminating all risk, it’s about eliminating some risk. Visa reforms, entry reforms, and the promotion of inbound overseas travel are critical, and the means—staffing, new technology, customer service—are out there.

We’ve found that 74 percent of visitors to the U.S. will have a more favorable opinion of it, and they’re more likely to leave in support of America’s policies in the world. It’s important to see travel as an asset that will strengthen national and economic security.

Q In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors voted on and passed a resolution that calls for the creation of a federal promotion campaign and also important visa reforms. They’ve joined the Partnership and the Travel Business Roundtable, on Capitol Hill, in support of your Travel Promotion Act.
A The mayors are saying, “We need to market ourselves.” It’s funny; every major city—and all 50 U.S. states—spend resources competing for visitors, because they realize the [importance of the] return on investment. And yet, at the national level, we still confront [some politicians] as to whether or not this is a government role, which really makes our federal government the world’s anomaly. Every other country has figured it out, every state has figured it out, every major destination has figured it out, but Washington continues to wonder if there’s any benefit in promoting tourism.

I think that, in the past, the attitude has been “Travelers are going to come here. Where else in the world would they want to go?” I like that confidence, but the numbers simply don’t prove it, especially post-9/11.What makes America strong is our aggressiveness and our competitiveness. But on [the business of tourism], we’ve decided to be passive and to roll over. That’s what we’re trying to change on Capitol Hill.