Accustomed to Conflict

In December 1990, a story in SM's sister publication MeetingNews reported that, as a result of America's impending invasion of Iraq (which happened the following February), U.S.-originating groups were staying away from much of Europe, despite the fact that Iraq is a good distance from most of the continent.

In particular, loss of business was cited in Spain and even Britain and Ireland. That momentary Europhobia stemmed from two sources: people's reluctance to travel during a war and geographic ignorance.

Today, while U.S. troops once again find themselves in Iraq, groups are much more "in the know" about the globe and less fearful about international travel. "In 1990, almost all incoming meeting, incentive, convention, and exhibition bookings were canceled," says Nacho Ferrando, CEO of Creatur, a Madrid-based destination management company. "With this second war, the situation has been just the opposite—we've gained business," he adds. "People today have a much better knowledge of our destination because of globalization and events like the Olympics [held in Barcelona in 1992], as well as the need for alternative destinations for groups that choose not to book near the conflict or in countries with [extremist] Muslim influence."

In the case of Spain during the early 1990s, many groups didn't know the difference between flamenco and Fallujah. "It's unbelievable, but people don't know where Spain is—some think it is very close to the Persian Gulf," a Madrid hotelier said at the time. At the same time, groups that were possibly London-bound knew where to find Harrod's and Windsor Castle; they were simply skittish about getting on planes, said Kate Wiggins, since deceased, of ICA Travel Ltd., a United Kingdom destination management company. "The pace of inquiries for the U.K. has slowed, because anywhere that's foreign makes people feel vulnerable," Wiggins said in 1990.

Here in the 21st century, both Spain and England have been hit with terrorist attacks. And yet groups now are far less reluctant to travel to those countries than they were in 1990. In fact, the terrorist acts on America's own soil have served to reduce fears about traveling to Europe, says Wendy Moffatt, chairman of Spectra, which took over ICA. "The world changed irrevocably for Americans with the Oklahoma bombing in April 1995 and, even worse, in September 2001; both times, they realized their home soil was as open to threat as any overseas destination," says Moffatt. "We have all become far more resilient and—dare I say it, defiant—to the threat of terrorism."