Travel has always had its annoyances, but they’ve usually been incremental enough that you don’t take a step back to look at the whole picture. Not any more. Take a step back today and you’ll be overwhelmed — by bloodied passengers being dragged off planes, seemingly regular terror attacks in Europe, mosquito-borne outbreaks in tropical destinations, shrinking air routes brought on by airline-industry consolidation, proposals for travel bans and border walls, bathroom bills and other discriminatory legislation, and on and on.
It’s gotten bad enough that Meet Puerto Rico — whose destination has taken a major hit on travel because of the misperception that it’s been ravaged by the Zika virus — organized a forum on May 1 called “Traveling in These Times.” Held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the forum was moderated by NPR newscaster Jack Speer and featured Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News; Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI); John Graham, CAE, president of ASAE; Tammy Blount, president and CEO of the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau and incoming 2017–2018 chair of DMAI; and Milton Segarra, CDME, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico. The discussion wide-ranging, but several focal points emerged:
1. Perception is reality. Panelists made this observation repeatedly, usually commenting on U.S. policies such as the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban that have made the country seem less welcoming to international visitors even if that isn’t their stated intent. But for Puerto Rico, it relates to Zika. Segarra noted that the U.S. territory lost 200,000 room nights in nine months thanks to the perception that it was being overwhelmed by Zika — despite that fact that less than 1 percent of the population is infected.
2. Unintended consequences. Greenberg in particular kept returning to this. He had several examples: President Trump’s first executive order banning travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries led to a $185-million loss in business-travel bookings and a 17-percent drop in online travel-related searches after just one week. In addition, some legal U.S. passport holders aren’t traveling because they’re afraid they won’t be let back in the country. Retail could take a hit as large as $10.4 billion because of the ban. And a policy requiring banning laptop computers and other electronic devices larger than a smartphone from the cabins of certain passenger flights to the United States has created safety concerns around storing so many lithium-ion batteries so close together in a cargo hold, as well as privacy and confidentially issues related to business executives who have sensitive information stored on their devices. “It’s the law of unintended consequences,” Greenberg said. “Even if it’s well intentioned, it’s not well thought out.”
3. The industry response. How is the meetings and travel industry responding to this perfect storm of challenges? Across a variety of fronts. Meet Puerto Rico is talking directly to meeting planners and corporate risk-management specialists, trying to share the actual story about Zika. For the first time ever, ASAE has retained a state-level lobbyist — to work against Texas’ proposed bathroom bill. And pretty much everyone on the panel talked about the need to better make the case that travel isn’t a luxury, but rather is necessary for economic growth, scientific progress, and cross-cultural understanding. “We’ve done a very poor job as an industry,” Graham said, “making that case.”
4. Emerging trends. There was good news, too. Welsh anticipates that groups will continue to meet, but not necessarily in the places where they used to, which will create opportunities for other destinations. He’s also convinced that people won’t stop traveling. “People are going to find the comfort level,” Welsh said, “to travel where they want to.”
And progress is possible. Eleven months after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected that up to 25 percent of Puerto Rico’s population could be infected with Zika within the next year, Segarra and his team are talking to the agency about bringing seven of its own conferences to the destination. That’s a direct result of Meet Puerto Rico’s efforts to communicate the full picture. “It’s not just, what about hotels, what about convention centers?” Segarra said. “It’s, what about health, what about safety?”