Where have all the international attendees gone?

Us border signby John Folks

It wasn’t that long ago that those of us in the business travel and convention industries were cringing at comments from our government officials and negative press around meetings and incentives. “Boondoggles,” “unnecessary extravagances,” and “shameful wasted spending” were common adjectives, and our industry felt the pressure as organizations pulled back on meetings.

However, over the last several years, President Obama has changed his position, at least in part due to the meetings industry economic impact study that was released a year ago. The Travel Promotion Act was enacted this past year, and last week, at Walt Disney World, President Obama announced the need for a national travel strategy that would include making the visa process easier for international visitors.

Why is this important? Estimates are that our cumbersome visa process kept over 70 million international visitors from entering the US over the last 10 years, which translated into over $600 billion in lost revenue. Yes, we all want to stay safe, but most western countries have an easier visa process and requirements than we do, and we need to be more competitive to show the international business community they are welcome at conventions on American soil. A travel strategy is a good start, but a strategy is merely a roadmap until someone takes the wheel and drives. Help spread the word that more needs to be done, and let’s hope there’s plenty of gas in the car.

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It’s a Small World After All

International dolls

By John Folks

As I flew back from IMEX America last week (http://www.imexamerica.com), I was reminded of what a great industry we work in – not only because of the community of outgoing and fun people we get to work with every day, but because we also get to meet so many interesting people from around the world at events like IMEX. I couldn’t help but be energized by the variety of languages I heard, regional costumes I saw, and interesting snacks I sampled as I made my way though the bevy of booths and international pavilions in the Sands Expo Center. Certainly it’s a vibrant trade show experience, but what makes it truly successful is that business is getting done there. The “hosted buyer” model of IMEX requires us (the buyers) to make (and keep) a minimum number of appointments with our choice of exhibitors over the course of the 3 day show. In exchange for that one-on-one time, the exhibitors bear the cost for our travel to and accommodations in Las Vegas. The benefit to the buyer is the opportunity to learn about new places and spaces, as well as to expand our Rolodex of reliable destination experts, global partners that are critical to planning and executing successful events outside the US.  

Over the years, attending shows like IMEX, I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of wonderful people from many different countries and destinations. Cultivating and growing this network has become a passion, and rarely do I travel somewhere and not know someone there. What I find that binds us all together in this industry is our love of travel and discovery, and the joy we get from bringing the world and the people in it a little bit closer, face to face.  And with so many global issues effecting all of us these days, a little face to face time with new international friends helps remind us that despite the news, there are a lot of good things going on in the world, too!  

So, if you haven’t attended (or planned) an international meeting, make a point of doing so soon. But I will warn you, your world will get a little bit smaller.

Mexico: Fact or Fiction?

by Katie Callahan-Giobbi

Woman hitting pinata in Mexico

Fun in Mexico

In preparation for my recent trip to Mexico, I asked several meeting planner friends of mine what their impression was of Mexico as a meetings destination. I was organizing my thoughts for a speech I was to give to the Mexican tourism and destination marketing community. Not surprising, I heard many positive comments about what a beautiful, hospitable country Mexico is. I heard all about the great food, rich history and outstanding hotels and meeting facilities. At the same time, I heard loud and clear that Mexico’s biggest problem is safety and security.

Is it safety and security? Or is it the perception of safety and security? During my trip I had the good fortune of sitting next to a very smart, accomplished and very successful Mexican hotelier. When we talked about this topic he told me in a very straight-forward way that there are cities in the US that have a higher crime rate per capita than all of Mexico.  Mexicans do not deny there is unrest in certain parts of their country. Even so, it is a mistake to assume the entire country is a battleground. In fact, the most troubled areas are hundreds and hundreds of miles away from almost all of the convention and meeting destinations in the country. It would be like assuming that if the crime rate suddenly went up in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would be less safe as well.

While doing my homework for this trip, I also learned that 97% of Americans who visit Mexico rate their experience as “extremely satisfied or satisfied.” That’s impressive. I also learned that tourism overall accounts for 9% of Mexico’s GDP compared to 2.7% in the US economy. President Felipe Calderon has declared 2011 as “The Year of Tourism”…and rightfully so. If my economy was that dependent on tourism, I would declare EVERY year the year of tourism. Kudos to President Calderon.

Yes,  Mexico is battling a drug war, but perhaps even more threatening to the livelihood of their people and the meetings industry, they are fighting a bigger war against the public perception of safety and security. This is one battle that can be overcome with facts.