Travel Industry Should Not Assume Continuation of Brand USA

By Stephen B. Richer, CTP

On Tuesday night, another attempt by Democrats to win a seat in the House of Representatives to fill a vacancy created by a Trump Administration appointee failed. Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican, defeated Jon Ossoff, a former Congressional staffer and a Democrat, in a runoff election. Ossoff had run 28% ahead of Handel in the original open primary and almost won the seat in that election, only missing a victory by 2%.  This was the Georgia seat previously held by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.

President Donald Trump and his policies were the subtext to this election, which cost close to 50 million dollars and set a new record for a Congressional race.  Trump himself got involved in the race by providing a message for robo-calls and sending tweets to stimulate a big turnout by his supporters.

A question therefore arises in terms of the continuation of Brand USA, which has been recommended by the Trump Administration to receive zero funding in FY 2018, thereby killing America’s tourism marketing agency if the proposal is adopted.  The question simply is, how much political capital is the Trump Administration willing to expend to terminate Brand USA and how willing are these nervous Republicans to confront an emboldened Administration?

We all know that key Republican members of Congress have called the Trump Budget “dead on arrival.”  We also know that Roger Dow, President of U.S. Travel, proclaimed in his remarks at IPW that Brand USA will continue.

Nevertheless, this new election victory in Georgia, combined with another one on Tuesday in South Carolina (making four straight special election victories and a clean sweep), will give President Trump additional political capital. No one can project whether he will want to spend some of it on ending Brand USA.

One point of concern relating to Brand USA from the Trump Administration’s perspective is its role in generating visitors, which could indirectly stimulate those that are perceived less than enthusiastically welcomed “tourists” to come to the United States.  While this hypothesis might seem silly on its face, current practices indicate there already are procedures in place in terms of issuing visas, honoring ones previously issued, and even allowing permanent residents to re-enter the country, which indicate that a zealous implementation of new security focused measures is moving apace.  Does the work of Brand USA conflict with this approach? We might find out soon.

The overall purpose of this discussion is simply to encourage the inbound tour operators to not assume that all will be fine with Brand USA and work extra hard to line up every member of Congress to support its continuation.  Inbound operators know best how important this work has been to stimulate growth in the international market for increased visitation to the United States.  The numbers are there to prove the results are impressive.  Go to www.thebrandusa.com, click on “Research & Analytics,” then “ROI Study” to arm yourself to discuss the performance of Brand USA with your Senators and Representative.  It’s a thorough documentation of the work done to grow the tourism economy.

Keep in mind, however, that the argument to terminate Brand USA is not just a budget issue with the idea to transfer the $100 million of annual matching money from the collection of ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) fees to Customs and Border Patrol, possibly for funding of the infamous wall on the Mexican border.

It’s actually an ideological approach to government that is the basis for the recommendation to terminate Brand USA.  Conservative players, such as the Heritage Foundation and policy groups funded by sources including the Koch brothers, believe that government has no role in promoting private business, therefore the travel industry should fund its own marketing efforts.  This is a much harder argument to win with some members of Congress, particularly if the Trump Administration chooses to vigorously pursue it.

In summary, international inbound operators should not sit idly by until the Brand USA issue is favorably resolved.  This is an “all hands on deck” matter.  The work to maintain funding of Brand USA has already begun with a broadly unified industry, but that is not enough in the face of ideological arguments that will be made.  No one can assume it will all turn out just fine.  Contact your members of Congress now!