Plenary

Brand USA: How to Market America in the Trump Era

Communicating about executive orders, border walls, and more.

Brand USA has a big job. Only created in 2010, the destination marketing organization is tasked with promoting travel to the United States. All of it. “By law,” President and CEO Christopher Thompson said in an interview, “we’re required to promote the entirety of the destination — all 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia.”

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 5.13.00 PMIt’s complicated and challenging under the best circumstances, but how about these days, when the Trump administration’s controversial policies on travel and immigration have created a backlash against the United States as a destination for business and leisure visitors alike? Convene recently talked to Thompson about Brand USA’s ongoing mission in the age of executive orders and border walls. 

Brand USA is still a relatively young organization, considering what it does.

I don’t know when you get to be not called young, but yeah, we’re in our seventh year. Brand USA was really brought into existence because for decades the travel and tourism industry was asking our federal partners, our government partners, how is it that one of the largest developed countries in the world, with the largest economy in the world, doesn’t have a national travel and tourism effort as it relates to promoting tourism?

How do you represent such a large, diverse destination?

By law we’re required to promote the entirety of the destination — all 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia. We have relationships with the travel suppliers, which are the destinations at the city and the state level, and then the travel brands which represent the actual product and who are responsible for delivering the experiences on the ground. On the buyer side and the media side, it’s everybody in market — travel agents, meeting planners, meeting facilitators that help facilitate travel, and then the travel media that help us tell our story. We have 13 offices around the world that have us working with the travel media in about 20 markets. We deployed a brand campaign — which is our “USA Campaign” — and this year it will be in 11 major markets around the world.

Have the Trump administration’s policies on immigration and travel created any challenges for your organization?

Our job is to market the United States of America. Our job also, by law, is to communicate visa and entry policies. In those countries that we require a visa, we need to communicate how they go about gaining that visa.

As it stands today, on March 14, nothing about obtaining a visa and nothing about legally entering the United States has changed. We have had the president issuing executive orders — the first one in January that was stayed, the second one last week that if it’s not challenged legally will go into effect on March 16. [Editor’s note: A federal judge blocked the revised executive order on March 15.]

The new executive order affects six countries. The number of visitors that we get from those six countries, it’s not large numbers. What we’re dealing with is more perceptions in the market versus the reality of how things have dramatically changed. Our job, therefore, is probably even more important than it’s ever been, because we have trusted relationships with many visitors and friends from around the world, so we can help with regard to any levels of uncertainty as it relates to the reality of the situation versus what might be perceived.

Otherwise, if you look at what makes the United States an aspirational destination all around the world as it relates to the diversity of the geography, the diversity of the experiences, the diversity of the people that are here to welcome our guests — none of that has changed. As of today, nothing has changed as it relates to getting a visa and gaining entry. There are things that potentially change on March 16, but those are things that are as it relates to the legal side of things; things that are relatively less impactful.

Are you worried, then, that the perception could be that the United States is becoming a less welcoming destination for international visitors?

It’s what people actually experience as it relates to having to get a visa or entering our borders. I can tell you that as we talk to our partners both here domestically and at ITB [Berlin, the international travel trade show,] last week, the actual impacts on visitation — we’re not seeing that. As a matter of fact, many of the travel trade at ITB, which really represent Central Europe, Germany, Austria, suggested that they were having record years and that they really felt no impact as it relates to any kind of changes in political sentiment. We do realize that any changes are lagging indicators, so changes might be coming down the road, but so far we haven’t seen a direct impact.

Does Brand USA play a role in shaping travel policy?

As it relates to setting policy, debating policy, deliberating policy — by law we’re not allowed to lobby, so we’re not involved in those conversations. When it relates to communicating policy and particularly visa-entry policy, by law we’re required to do that. So what we do for the most part is make sure that people realize there’s lots of great sources for them to get the actual reality versus any kind of perception, and that comes from the federal agencies that are responsible for visa and entry policy, those being the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and the Department of State.

We have great friends in the U.S. Travel Association and other trade associations that represent the vertical brand markets — for lodging, restaurant, retail, attractions, destination marketing organizations. Those friends are the ones that advocate to help influence policy on [Capitol] Hill on our behalf and on behalf of the entire travel and tourism industry. Our job is just to make sure that we accurately communicate the policy, most specifically as it related to visa and entry policy. 

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso is executive editor of Convene.