With a new president and strategy against Covid in place, US tourism chiefs tell Tom Parry their hopes for the year and outline the opportunities that lie ahead for UK agents.
"It definitely feels like a new chapter for America."
Speaking little more than a week after US president Joe Biden’s inauguration, the optimism from NYC & Company chief Fred Dixon is palpable.
With his plan to vaccinate 100 million citizens in his first 100 days in office, the new president has literally given the country’s fightback against Covid a much-needed shot in the arm – and despite entry restrictions on international travel, Dixon says his team are “keeping our eyes on the long game”.
Biden can help usher in a more "pro-travel" era than the White House’s previous occupant, he believes.
"I feel like we’ve been in a less pro-travel environment over the last four years. Pulling away from the global community [axing its funding of the World Health Organization and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement] doesn’t exactly paint you as a good neighbour… rejoining those initiatives sends the right message to global travellers."
Biden’s tenure during Barack Obama’s administration, which saw the creation of Brand USA and quicker visa processing times – something that has apparently since slowed under Donald Trump’s presidency – already puts him on a good footing with the travel sector.
Biden’s potential to help the US tourism industry recover from the pandemic – after estimated losses of $500 billion and 4.5 million jobs – is welcomed by US Travel Association president Roger Dow, who has been working with Biden’s new team amid the transition.
"I think he’s going to be very prone to open up international travel safely and as quickly as possible, and to measures that will get the US economy moving," he says.
Brand USA president Chris Thompson agrees, saying the organisation is "confident" the new administration "understands the impact of travel and tourism to the US economy and the role it will play in economic recovery".
"Our industry is a major contributor to our nation’s economy and its eventual recovery will lead us out of this crisis. All of this makes Brand USA’s work even more critical," he adds.
"Our team is energised. We’re prepared for this moment and uniquely positioned to bring the industry together and help navigate the road to recovery of international travel and spend."
Dow and other US travel leaders are hopeful of meeting the president next month to discuss plans.
"He’s got a busy schedule, but the sooner the travel industry can get in front of him the better,” Dow tells TTG. "Biden understands travel but we need to really bring it home that travel is the fulcrum to get the economy moving."
That optimism – a "Biden bounce" if you will – seems to have spread across the pond to the UK, with clients keen to book their own American dream as something to look forward to after the nightmare of Covid.
Sales data from Gold Medal reveals US trips accounted for around a third of all bookings made last month and average booking value increased by 11% in January 2021 compared to 2020.
New York, Florida, Las Vegas, California and Boston were the operator’s most popular destinations, with the Big Apple performing particularly well – room nights booked in January were more than 50% higher than in December (the highest they have been since late February 2020).
Advantage Travel Partnership leisure director Kelly Cookes says New York "has consistently been in our top three destinations since the start of January", with most departures from September onwards.
Dixon and Dow are bullishly looking to summer onwards as budding with opportunity for visitors and the trade.
Gold Medal clients seem to be thinking along the same lines, with the latter half of the year and into 2022 accounting for more than 80% of January bookings (compared with 46% for that period 12 months ago) and only 1% of customers booked to depart in the next six months.
"We’re very confident we’re going to see things become strong this summer, have a good fall [autumn] and 2022," says Dow. "I’m an optimist, and this industry has always proven it’s more resilient than people think."
For Dixon, the "short-term pain" of restrictions will pave the way for travel’s comeback once a significant proportion of the US population and its major source markets, such as the UK, have been vaccinated.
Despite "not being in the business of making predictions during uncertain times", Thompson believes the UK to be “vital” to the US tourism recovery.
"It is our largest overseas market for inbound visitation and in 2019 it was the fifth largest market in spend,” he explains. "We know there is pent-up demand for travel and the reasons people want to visit the US remain the same. I’m confident our UK friends will return when the time is right, and we as Americans look forward to welcoming them back."
The path to reopening tourism has been trodden differently state by state in the US. Florida’s attractions and hotels have “stayed mostly open” – something Visit Florida boss Dana Young believes shows the Sunshine State can offer “infinite opportunities for safe, enjoyable vacations”.
Meanwhile, after California recently permitted leisure businesses to open, measures urging residents to stay close to home remain. Visit California president Caroline Beteta gives a "cautiously optimistic" outlook for 2021, although she does not expect a full Covid recovery to come until 2024 and "likely longer for overseas travel".
With the UK the state’s second-largest visitor market, "pent-up demand will be key for our recovery", she comments. Beteta believes an aligned national strategy is needed to aid tourism efforts. "It’s vital we work together and approach this as a collective industry," she says, with Dow also calling for "a consistent situation" between states.
With the US vaccine roll-out making headway (almost 30 million people had received at least one dose as TTG went to press on 4 February), each destination is planning to soon ramp up regional and national promotions, and although it may be several months until Brits return, UK trade partners are still at the forefront of plans.
Brand USA launched a Global Marketplace digital platform towards the end of last year, featuring networking initiatives, educational seminars and events across multiple time zones.
"First and foremost, health and public officials must indicate they believe the virus is contained and it is safe to travel. Then, as part of our mission, we will work with the UK travel trade to better prepare them to provide travellers with information they’ll need regarding US travel policies to ensure their visit is as safe and seamless as possible," outlines Thompson.
"Once the time is right", he says Brand USA will then launch a consumer-facing recovery campaign alongside airline and tour operator partners to drive bookings.
Meanwhile, Young says Visit Florida remains "in constant contact" with UK partners, and hosted its Florida Huddle trade conference this month to connect and update agents. Beteta says Visit California will rely on its UK industry partnerships “more than ever” as it starts its recovery.
Dixon adds New York’s hotels – a third of which are currently closed – are "going to be eager to renew partnerships and get product in place" for Brits, and international marketing will likely start appearing from "mid-year".
While travel is halted in the short-term, Dixon and Dow urge UK agents to make the most of high consumer interest and competitive pricing.
"My message would be start planning now. There are tremendous deals out there, and when travel starts picking up in the summer they will disappear," advises Dow. "Book now, get people planning and then when the time is right we’ll be back on the road and back together again."
Dixon agrees "we’re going to be in a climate of good value for some time", adding: "Being part of that comeback and the restart of travel is going to be a really exciting era."
Here’s to a new chapter in US – and travel – history.