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Interview: Brand USA CEO on the Next Phase of Marketing America Abroad

@gregoates

Jul 30, 2014 8:00 am

Skift Take

Will Congress reauthorize the nation’s first national destination marketing organization before session ends? Both big and small town America hope so based on Brand USA’s economic development and job creation deliverables in 2013.

— Greg Oates

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Brand USA

DiscoverAmerica.com's Great American Food Stories landing page Brand USA


Editor’s note: Skift is two years old as of today, and we’re rolling out a week of special travel industry coverage. This is one of a series you can find in full here, as we roll out these stories.

The reauthorization of America’s first official national destination marketing organization, Brand USA, was passed by the House of Representatives on July 22 by a vote of 347-57.

One day later, the Senate Commerce Committee accepted the House vote without amendment. It then cleared passage for an upcoming vote in the Senate to reauthorize the public/private partnership dedicated to increasing inbound international travel to the United States. If that vote goes well, President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

“Yesterday was a very good day,” exhaled Amir Eylon, VP of partner engagement for Brand USA, a couple hours after hearing the Senate Committee news in Las Vegas last week. Eylon was in town to provide an overview of Brand USA at the annual Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) conference.

To fully understand the consequences of the reauthorization bill requires revisiting the “Lost Decade”—as coined by the U.S. Travel Association. From 2000 to 2010, America’s portion of international tourism spending worldwide fell from 17% to 11%, even though international arrivals jumped from 51 to 60 million.

The U.S. Travel Association estimates that drop in market share over the 10-year period caused a loss of $37 billion in travel-generated tax revenue and 467,000 jobs.

At the time, according to Eylon, America was the only developed country in the world without a national destination marketing organization (DMO). So in 2010, President Obama signed the Travel Promotion Act, resulting in the launch of the first-ever National Travel & Tourism Strategy (NTTS) in 2012. The mandate of the NTTS set an ambitious goal for 100 million international arrivals and $250 billion in travel-related spending by 2021.

Part of the new tourism strategy called for the creation of Brand USA, which in 2012 launched the DiscoverAmerica.com portal. However, Brand USA was only approved for a trial run through September 2015, hence the Congressional vote this year.

The DiscoverAmerica.com launch coincided with consumer, co-op and trade media ad campaigns in key source markets worldwide, which presently stand at ten and account for 75% of all international traffic into the United States. If reauthorization is successful, which is anticipated it will be, Brand USA will expand its marketing reach to 30 markets over the next several years.

It’s important to note that Brand USA is funded by the collection of $14 in fees from international inbound travelers arriving from visa waiver markets, via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The fee is split with $10 going to Brand USA and $4 directed to U.S. Customs & Border Protection, with a mandated maximum allotment of $100 million in ESTA monies available per year for Brand USA’s coffers.

“But we don’t get a quarterly check, we don’t get a monthly check, or at the end of the fiscal year in October, a check for $100 million,” said Eylon. “We have to unlock our budget. One dollar of cash or in-kind contribution from our industry partners, like yourselves, unlocks one dollar of match from that ESTA fund. So for us to really, what we say ‘maximize the match,’ and draw on the full resources available to us and maximize the marketing power for Brand USA, that means we have to work with you collaboratively to acquire $200 million total.”

In 2013, the industry ponied up above and beyond the $100 million goal, from some of the biggest names in hospitality and tourism, ranging from Marriott and Best Western Hotels to Visit California and Visit Florida.

The result of all of that marketing spend on economic and job development across the country’s tourism industry is a big reason why Brand USA has met with partisan approval on the Hill. In the 2014 U.S. Travel Association report, Brand USA: Working for All of US, the direct impact of Brand USA’s international marketing efforts in 2013 was quantified as such:

“Brand USA generated more than 1.1 million additional visitors to the United States in 2013, and these visitors spent $3.4 billion while traveling in the U.S., directly supporting nearly 28,000 direct jobs as a result and generating nearly $1 billion in federal, state and local taxes. A recent study found that Brand USA has a return on investment of 47:1—far stronger than our main travel competitors such as the United Kingdom and Canada.”

Related: Brand USA’s 47-to-1 Return on Investment Claim Attracts Doubts Even Among Supporters

Here’s more from a Brand USA-sponsored video with travel personality Peter Greenberg.

The Brand USA Content Hub

Following DMAI, we spoke with Chris Thompson, president/CEO of Brand USA about the DiscoverAmerica.com portal and the overall content direction. The site includes a wealth of travel destination stories bucketed by state, city, travel experiences and travel niches, among others.

Accessing the content by state provides a solid overview of the region, such as this Illinois page, with over 40 posts, bulleted information and quick facts, a Google Map, and links to the official Discover America print guide and the official Discover Illinois DMO.

“We now have 450 partners actively engaged in contributing to and cooperating in marketing with us,” says Thompson. “I think some of our most engaged and vested partners are the destination marketing organizations in all 50 states, and all of the major cities within those states.”

A significant share of the text and video content is supplied by local DMOs, supplemented by various travel companies, local travel bloggers and Brand USA staff. Thompson asserts that the overarching goal is to provide as much coverage as possible beyond the major gateway cities.

This gives exposure to small DMOs like the Great Rivers Country Regional Tourism Development Office in Illinois to promote the Wineries & Small Town Charm in Galena.

“One of the things we take very seriously is promoting not only to, but through the major gateways, because there’s so much to what is the United States of America that includes those gateways but is really beyond those cities also,” says Thompson. “So a lot of the programs and content that we’ve implemented employ telling stories about those opportunities to experience the entire scope of what the country has to offer.”

Thompson explains that the DiscoverAmerica.com website is still in its infancy, with a full spectrum of targeted content initiatives in development.

In June, for example, Brand USA launched the Discover America: Great American Food Stories cookbook/travel guide both online and in print in six different languages. A total of 31 James Beard Award-winning chefs are featured, five of whom traveled to five primary markets in Asia during the launch of the book tour during the July 4th holiday.

“The beauty of culinary is that it includes not only the gateways, but beyond the gateways, because every community large or small around this country has something unique as it relates to culinary options,” explains Thompson. “So it’s certainly a great and compelling platform for us to tell the story. This is also going to be a digital platform that we’re going to build upon beyond just this guide and beyond just this launch because there’s so many opportunities to leverage it in other ways through our destination brands around the country.”

Next up, Brand USA is producing a giant screen film themed around the “Great Outdoors,” celebrating the country’s 400+ national parks. The film will be released next year during the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park System.

According to the press release announcing the film: “There are over 800 giant screen theaters in over 57 countries and growing. China, one of the United States’ top 10 countries in both international visitation and spend, has the second largest market with over 75 giant screen theaters located throughout the country. Giant screen theaters can be found in many of Brand USA’s key target markets.”

According to Eylon, Asia has tested high for interest in the national parks and outdoor attractions in general, while polls show they’re less likely to be attracted to America’s large cosmopolitan cities. Whereas another market like Latin America is the opposite, responding with little interest toward branding revolving around the American West, for example.

“They already have cowboys in Argentina,” explained Eylon.

For the Asia market, however, the Great Outdoors film presents a massive opportunity for both content and event marketing.

“So we’re launching a Great Outdoors digital platform similar to culinary, that is going to extend through the making of the film, through the premiere of the film, and then through deploying that film through big screen and IMAX theaters all around the world,” says Thompson. “And we’re going to activate that in cooperation with our travel trade partners, our travel media partners, and our destination marketers that are very interested in getting involved with that.”

Thompson sums up by explaining that travel and tourism is our nation’s number one service export, so for everything the U.S. exports that’s not a product, 25% of it is tied to international travel and related services.

“These programs we’ve established are a great example of what we’ve been able to accomplish through the original passage of TPA [Travel Promotion Act], partnerships with the industry, and this public/private partnership that the Federal government created,” he says. “We’re proud of the ROI that we’ve been able to generate, and the recognition of that in Congress as it relates to contributions to the nation’s number one service export.”

Greg Oates covers hotel/tourism development and travel brand media. email/twitter

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