Don’t Listen to Washington, Tourist Organizations Try Telling Foreigners

Posted January 14, 2018 4:14 p.m. EST

Persuading international travelers to visit the United States did not used to be difficult. But things have gotten a little more complicated.

According to the Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Office, the number of international visitors in the first half of 2017 fell 4 percent from a year earlier. Those in the travel industry point to factors like a global market that gives tourists more possible destinations, the strength of the dollar and tightening visa restrictions.

They also say the messages coming from the Trump administration — the latest example being President Donald Trump’s vulgar comment about Haiti and African nations — play a role.

“Although the policy of the administration has not been targeted towards tourists, per se, tourists around the world are asking themselves whether they’re welcome in the United States,” said Daniel Korschun, associate professor of marketing at Drexel University, who focuses on the intersection of advertising and politics. “That’s surely a factor in the sagging performance.”

This week, the U.S. Travel Association plans to announce that industry groups are forming the Visit U.S. Coalition in an attempt to combat the slump through advocacy, lobbying, advertising and other methods. Members include the American Gaming Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Christopher Heywood, spokesman for New York City’s tourism organization, NYC & Co., said “negative rhetoric coming out of the current administration” was a driving force behind the group’s marketing last year, which featured the phrases “Welcoming the world” and “All are welcome.”

“We’re not a political group,” he said. “We’re a marketing group, but there was so much at stake, we needed to be more engaged.”

The nonprofit tourism organization Brand USA will begin its new marketing campaign with a sweeping, 40-minute film that showcases the United States through the lens of musical history. It hopes the approach will convey that the U.S. embraces individuals and cultures from outside its borders.

“Travel has a way of transcending politics,” said Chris Thompson, president and chief executive of Brand USA. “I think our ability to use music, because it’s so compelling and inspirational, it really allows us to rise above any of that.”

The film will be shown at museums and similar locations in top overseas markets beginning next month, and will be augmented by digital and social promotion.

“That strategy could be a very interesting one because it gets across a lot of the wonderful cultural influences that have permeated life in the States from everywhere in the world,” said Damien Eley, executive creative director at the ad agency Mistress, which has worked with the Los Angeles tourism board on its campaigns. “It’s a nice device to be able to show the depth of culture and diversity in the States.”

Getting a tone of tacit recognition just right is a delicate feat. The destination marketing organizations of New York and Los Angeles, which ran campaigns explicitly highlighting their inclusivity last year, have employed similar strategies to evolve their messaging to be not anti-Trump but pro-destination.

“Travel isn’t about negativity at all,” said Brian Tolleson, managing partner at the agency Bark Bark, which worked with Orbitz on a diversity-focused campaign last year. Advertising that taps into negative sentiment risks alienating people, he said.

“To stand up for positive values might be the best we can do in the face of whatever may happen in the political climate,” Tolleson added.

When NYC & Co. began its “True York City” campaign late last year, Heywood said, the intent was to draw attention to the city’s diversity of people, neighborhoods and cultural offerings. The organization enlisted an array of designers, chefs, writers and other residents to endorse the city’s hidden gems rather than just its iconic sights.

Tolleson said, “The instinct to talk about travel on a person-to-person level is something that helps disarm some of the negative political discourse.”

Los Angeles is evolving last year’s “Everyone Is Welcome” campaign to highlight eclectic cultural offerings as well as inclusivity in a campaign that will begin next month.

“We want to drive visitation, too,” said Don Skeoch, chief marketing officer of Discover Los Angeles, the city’s destination marketing organization. “We have to pivot a bit.” Although Los Angeles officials recently announced that a record 7.1 million people from outside the United States visited the city in 2017, Skeoch said appealing to millennial travelers with the promise of unique and personal experiences would keep the momentum going.

“We’ll emphasize high and low culture in this creative,” he said. “We have museums, but we’ll also look at street murals.”

In its promotions, Brand USA also works with travel and lifestyle personalities who have large social media followings in their countries, giving their endorsements more clout. “We’ve really gravitated more towards that — this being on the ground and in touch,” Thompson said.

Eley of Mistress said making inclusivity and tolerance part of their public profile was a way for cities to stand apart from the political invective.

“A city now has in their marketing armory a story of who they are and how they’re different from the current administration,” he said. “It’s certainly something that’s given LA a whole other avenue of their brand to fall back on and celebrate.”