Planning International Meetings in the Era of 'America First'

Despite challenges, opportunities remain for those who can navigate the changing political landscape

International Travel ban

Several hundred attendees gathered outside the Hilton Baltimore this past February during the annual convention of the International Studies Association (ISA). They weren't holding a teambuilding event -- they were holding a protest. At issue was President Donald Trump's latest executive order that sought to ban immigration from six Muslim-majority countries from getting new visas, a move that industry analysts predicted could cost over $10 billion in U.S. tourism. 

Of the 6,500 social scientists and policy practitioners who were scheduled to attend the ISA meeting, 177 backed out last-minute, some affected by the ban and others boycotting in solidarity with those who couldn't attend. 

"The travel ban, the building of a wall, these things will have a symbolic impact on how welcoming the United States appears to be to visitors," says Mark A. Boyer, executive director of the ISA and a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Connecticut. The backlash from these travel restrictions has had financial implications on ISA as one-third of its revenue is generated by the convention. Appropriately for a conference that was this year themed "Understanding Change in World Politics," ISA is rethinking future events as a result of the changing political climate.

"We are planning more medium-sized meetings in non-North American venues for those concerned about getting into the US," says Boyer. A meeting for 1,000 is being held this year in Hong Kong and another for 1,000 in Quito, Ecuador. 

ISA is not the only organization having to rethink its approach to international events in this fast-changing and unpredictable political climate. But even in the face of challenges, planners and industry leaders see opportunities for those who are nimble enough to navigate this changing landscape. 

Trump Slump in Travel

This year, the U.S. will lose about 4.3 million visitors and $7.4 billion as a result of Trump's proposed travel restrictions. Next year, that number is predicted to grow to $10.8 billion and 6.3 million visitors, according to Adam Sacks, founder and president of Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economic company dedicated to quantitatively based consulting to the travel sector.  

This loss is a result of a combination of factors. "'America First' rhetoric, which was pronounced during the campaign and Trump's inauguration speech, is finding consistent expression in policy," says Sacks. "On multiple fronts -- diplomacy, trade, border control, and visa policy -- international markets are receiving a message that America is no longer a welcoming destination. With new regulations on electronics and tighter visa issuance policies recently announced, global travel markets will take further cues that the U.S. is not as welcoming as it once was."

One tool Sacks suggests can help overcome these challenges: creative and targeted marketing campaigns. He points to organizations such as Brand USA and major state and city destination marketing organizations as having "never been more important."  

NYC & Company has taken heed by creating the campaign "New York City - Welcoming the World." This comes in response to predictions that the city will see its first drop in visitation since the beginning of the recession in 2008. 

"While projected declines among travelers are concerning, the irrepressible hospitality and welcoming nature of New York City gives us confidence that our destination will continue to appeal to visitors from around the world," says Fred Dixon, NYC & Company president and CEO. "We will work tirelessly to do all we can to preserve our City's tourism industry in the months ahead."

Border Wall

Adding more complications to international relations is Trump's promise to build a 30-foot-high wall on the U.S./Mexican border. Estimated to cost between $12 billion and $15 billion, this promise has caused relations between Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Trump to be contentious. 

After the Mexican president canceled a meeting with Trump, he issued a video statement posted to Twitter that said, "Mexico does not believe in walls. I've said time again; Mexico will not pay for any wall."

Roughly 70 percent of incentive planners sending groups to Mexico, according to the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF)'s 2017 Trends Study, and the combination of a weak peso and increased airlift has fueled growth from north of the border. But the newly contentious relationship is creating instability. 

When traveling overseas, be prepared for the questions, and lots of them, says Martin Sirk, chief executive officer of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). "Don't mistake the unpopularity of the current U.S. political direction, which is very common all around the world, with unpopularity of America and Americans," he says. "Friends are to be found everywhere, but many people are feeling rather baffled by what happened. Be prepared to get asked, because everyone is currently interested in U.S. politics." 

But not everyone is feeling impacted. Cheryl Faust, director of global accounts at HelmsBriscoe, hasn't felt any repercussions from this fallout. "I booked two programs to Mexico in the last six months and I have an international program meeting in Copenhagen in May," she says.

Today, globalization is a reality of international business. The IRF 2017 Trends Study found that over three-quarters of incentive travel program owners will run at least one program outside U.S. borders this year. 

Major elections in several popular European incentive destinations including France, Germany, and the Netherlands will be telling. Additionally, the governments in Southern European countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece ebb and flow in their stability. Also, given Brexit and the influence of Russia in Eastern European countries, the Euro's trajectory is difficult to predict. 

"This year we are seeing a shift in sentiment, reflecting both continued global expansion and growth, balanced by political and economic uncertainty combined with safety concerns in some countries across the globe," says Issa Jouaneh, senior vice president and general manager, American Express Meetings & Events about its 2017 Global Meetings and Events Forecast. "Add to this the impact of the new U.S. presidential administration and how this will play out."

Although the sentiment continues to be one of caution, Jouaneh adds that the overall picture continues to be quite robust with an increase in meetings and events across the globe. 

"We have seen corporations adapt to uncertainty, changes in policy, to different practices and continue to invest in meetings and events held internationally as well as meetings that bring international audiences to the U.S." 

In today's global economy, workforces are geographically dispersed, which means successful companies regularly have global meetings. "We plan international meetings in support of the employees and members who live overseas," says Faust. "We do this so they don't always have to travel to the United States to attend a meeting." 

Airlift, political climate, safety, cost, and space availability are some of the factors she keeps in mind when booking international programs. Cut-off dates, the date on which any prior arrangements with a venue in regards to room block guarantees are locked in stone or released, is often an issue of contention in the international events Faust plans. "The policies that work for them don't always work for us American meeting planners," adds Faust. 

It is important to understand fact from hysteria related to these new restrictions. 

"One of the most important things a meeting planner should do is understand all of the nuances of the travel ban," says Karen Shackman, president of New York City-based Shackman Associates, a destination management company. "The confusion might be a bigger business problem than the current reality or likely legal outcome."

Below: U.S. Travel's Roger Dow on President Trump's executive order on travel