In July, Convene sat down with Anne Madison, chief strategy and communications officer for Brand USA, the United States’ destination marketing organization at Destinations International’s 2017 Annual Convention in Montreal. Madison represents an organization whose mission, according to Brand USA’s website, is to increase international visitation to the U.S. “in order to fuel the nation’s economy and enhance the image of the USA world-wide” — so we wanted to know if that image might require some extra polishing during the Trump administration.
First of all, let me ask about the future of Brand USA, which is partially federally funded, and which President Trump’s budget has slated for elimination in order to shift dollars to Customs and Border Protection.
The president’s budget is really a statement of priorities. It’s considered a blueprint, a budget for discussion, not a budget for voting. The power of the purse is really in the hands of Congress. The Appropriations Committees of the House and the Senate build their own budget — they may refer to the president’s budget, but generally, historically, have not typically followed it. So, we’re not concerned from a presidential- budget standpoint. We’re actually not even surprised, because if you’ve got an administration that needs to cut more than what’s available out of a budget, you would certainly see everything being cut down. The other reason it’s not a concern is because of the results that we’ve had, and that we can show a 27-to-1 return on the public-private partnership dollars.
Brand USA is entrusted with helping shape the way potential international travelers view the country. Has that become more challenging during the Trump administration?
We want to make sure that people understand that there really has not been a huge effect on visitation to the United States, current or forecast, based on a new administration coming in. In fact, U.S. Travel’s Travel Trends Index actually sees an increase of about 5.5 percent so far this year. If you [look at] Canada, there’s a 30-percent change in the currency valuation that goes back well into 2016 and partially in 2015. And that has resulted in the numbers that we have now in spending from Canada — down 13 percent from 2016 compared to 2015. Which put China on top as the No. 1 spend in the United States, which is really amazing, because historically it has been our neighbors to the north and south as being the No. 1 and No. 2 in spend.
From a group perspective, what are you seeing?
You’re not really going to see much of a change right now, because groups that come in are obviously booking three to five years out. We haven’t seen a huge cancellation rate. There have been some anecdotal stories about cancellations here and there, but generally you’re not going to see a cancellation regardless, because who wants to lose 100 percent, just to choose another destination to go to.
Are you hearing anything anecdotally about concerns that meeting organizers have about attracting international attendees since the travel and laptop bans have come up?
What we hear and what we see are generally two different things right now. We can look at things like security, which is important to people. It’s part of making people feel welcome. Let me just say one comment about that. There has been third-party research that has said that when you ask somebody how important is security, feeling secure, when you pick a destination, they’ll say that it’s extremely important. Security means that there’s not going to be a terrorist attack, that they’re not going to be a victim of random violence, for example. Then people will go to the destination, any destination. They’ll say that they felt secure, and interestingly enough, they’ll say that what made them feel secure was how welcomed they felt at the border. When it comes down to it, security and welcoming go hand in hand.
So I guess there are people from other countries, given the kind of rhetoric they’re hearing from the Trump administration, who don’t feel that the U.S. is that kind of a welcoming place. But maybe if they come, their experience on the grass-roots level is a completely different one. Because it’s really all about the people. The people are what make the experience. The product that we create as travel professionals, whether it’s business meetings or whatever, are those experiences. Things that expand your mind, the things that open your heart. I mean, I get emotional about it, because I feel like that’s what we have the privilege of doing. And it doesn’t only make economic sense, it pulls in so many positive ways to your heart.
A note about Brand USA’s funding: Half of Brand USA’s budget is funded by contributions from non-federal sources. Brand USA is a public-private partnership with revenues from a combination of proceeds from a tourism promotion fund generated by a $14 registration fee paid by travelers from 38 Visa Waiver countries, combined with contributions from non-federal sources.