Putting a brave face on Trump: the Speakeasy report

Putting a brave face on Trump: the Speakeasy report

At Designate’s most recent Speakeasy event, during a week of Independence Day related events when many US destinations were in town to promote themselves to the UK travel trade, the big topic was addressed head-on:

Is President Trump harming the US tourism industry?

Putting perceptions and personal opinions to one side, there have been a flurry of tourism statistics in recent months suggesting that UK visitors are staying away from American destinations. The stats vary, and some are downright contradictory, but the industry is definitely worried, as we heard from IPW early last month.

On the panel, moderated by TravelMole’s and Designate’s very own Graham McKenzie, were some highly relevant and knowledgeable speakers

– Fernando Harb, Vice President of Tourism Sales for Greater Fort Lauderdale

– Jonathan Sloan, MD of Hills Balfour, representing Visit USA and Brand USA

– Hans Lagerweij, Portfolio Managing Director of Travelopia (owner of brands Trek America and Grand American Adventures)

– Tim Williamson, Director of ResponsibleTravel.com

The discussion began with an instant rebuttal of the Trump effect. Fernando Harb contended that any challenges his tourism industry currently faces are more to do with wider economic factors than politics. It was a theme taken up by destination representatives in the audience: the British traveller seeks value (aka cheap holidays) where they can find it, and the weaker pound has simply made the US less affordable. The challenge therefore is to make American destinations more attractive both through keen pricing and through the product offering.

Jonathan Sloan broadly echoed these views and, taking the wider US destination perspective, cited the cyclical nature of destination appeal and tourism industry fortunes, applauding the US industry for their unique unity and commitment to marketing their brands, whatever the circumstances.

Hans Lagerweij took the view that the issue is to do with how ‘cool’ a destination is. Canada is currently the place to go, putting the US in the shade, so to speak. The question of what effect Trump is having on America’s ‘cool factor’ wasn’t specifically addressed, but interestingly one of Travelopia’s own recent customer research studies showed nearly 10% of people deciding not to visit the US specifically because of Trump. To be fair, a further 20% of customers cited the exchange rate as the main barrier, so economics most certainly are a key factor.

The most unrestrained opinion on the subject came from Tim Williamson, who took the view that Trump is a real and measurable factor. Responsible Travel, who offer holidays to nearly every destination in the world, have sold 1 single holiday to the US in 2017, and that one is to Alaska. He made the interesting point that there are different types of traveller from the UK, and in this most mature and experienced of outbound markets, there are growing numbers of more discerning and principled holidaymakers. Ethical and political principles are closely bound, and the fact that the US offers woefully little in the way of responsible tourism product can only be exacerbated by the presence of the current administration.

There was a good amount of both empirical and anecdotal evidence from tour operating audience members that their US product is not selling well. One had cancelled a 2017 eclipse tour due to lack of interest; another cited dramatically reduced search traffic. The worry is there.

However, if sterling were back to pre-Brexit levels, the picture would surely be different. Fernando was also optimistic that the blip is temporary with a pick up in numbers predicted for the second half of the year.

The real question is, how much better would the current situation be if the President of the USA were the one putting out a welcome mat, rather than building walls and introducing bans wherever possible, in the name of security? Similarly, with a hotelier committed to protecting American jobs residing in the White House and with the travel and tourism sector employing exponentially more people than the oil industry, how long will it take before Trump takes action?

What is encouraging is that the tourism industry isn’t taking it lying down. However much they avoid the political side of the debate and put a brave face on it for the UK travel trade, they are clearly committed to marketing their brands with whatever resources are at their disposal.

Our comment on all of this is that the US tourism destinations need to build their own brands first and foremost. Sell the dream holiday, with the best product and proposition you can build, and harness the resources and efforts of Brand USA, but don’t be swallowed up by brand USA (deliberate small b), because it is currently tarnished. Or to put it another way, ‘not cool’.

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