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While we wait for the Trump Administration to deploy the second iteration of its controversial travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries, the travel industry has had a few weeks to process the original ban, which went into effect on January 27 and was blocked by federal courts earlier this month.
During recent analyst calls to discuss fourth quarter and full year earnings, hotel CEOs and executives discussed what kind of impact, if any, the ban has had on their business, as well as what kind of potential, longer-term impact it could have going forward.
For many of these executives, it was the first time they spoke publicly about the policy. In the immediate aftermath of the executive order, most major hotel companies remained silent about the ban, in contrast to other travel companies and tourism organizations.
The only major U.S. hotel company to issue a statement about the ban was Choice Hotels, whose statement was as follows: “Choice Hotels supports efforts to ensure the safety and security of the United States. At the same time, we urge the administration to find a balanced approach that promotes travel. More specifically, we ask the administration to welcome international visitors and immigrants who travel to our country to enjoy our sights and landmarks, conduct business, visit family, and to live and work, while providing appropriate travel security solutions that protect all Americans.” During Choice Hotels’ earnings call, CEO Stephen P. Joyce was not asked about the travel ban by analysts and he did not mention it in his prepared remarks.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) also issued a statement, expressing the organization’s desire to “work together to develop policies that both promote hospitality and travel to the United States for those who wish to come – both as employees and as guests – while also ensuring the safety of our citizens here at home.”
While most hotel CEOs seemed to agree that the ban didn’t have a significant, immediate impact on their businesses, one hotel executive, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, expressed concerns about what kind of message such a policy sends to the rest of the world. He also noted that already, Marriott is seeing anecdotal evidence of some groups choosing to meet in other countries instead of the U.S., primarily because of concerns related to these kinds of travel policies.
Here’s what Sorenson said when asked about the ban by analysts:
“Yeah, we don’t have a lot of data yet that would say that this is a big deal in terms of stayed-and-paid experience in our hotels,” Sorenson said. “Obviously, the seven countries that are called out in the executive order are not places where there’s a lot of travel that comes to the United States. And obviously too, the executive order has been suspended by a ruling of the court, so it’s not in effect. We, as a consequence, don’t think that by its terms, it’s a massive deal. Now saying that, we should stop and pause for a second. You’ve got individual stories of families who’ve been waiting for a long period of time to get visas or other permission to emigrate. And for them, there is no bigger story in the world than having those rights up-ended and uncertainty sort of race back into their lives.
“Having said that, there is a broad sense, particularly across the Middle East but across much of the world that the executive order is a really big deal and that the symbolism is wrong and that it is effectively a communication from the United States to the rest of the world that you should anticipate that either you’re not going to be welcome here or that you may have difficulty getting in. And we think that’s what has motivated the handful of stories that we’ve heard about already, which are typically group stories. And they are not, of course, international groups where folks are saying, you know what? I’m not sure I want to take the risk of trying to bring an international group into the United States, whether it’d be for a wedding or for a meeting because my whole group may not be able to get in.
“And so, we have some anecdotes about folks who have reached out to us and said, you know what? Rather than focus on that hotel in the U.S., why don’t we look at what you’ve got in Canada? Or why don’t you look at what you’ve got someplace else? And if we’re hearing a handful of those anecdotes already – I’m sure there are a number that we’re not hearing, which are groups who had not yet contacted us but who are not – would have contacted us were it not for this executive order. But instead are maybe going directly to one of our hotels in another country or they’re simply deferring their efforts to plan that business.
“So again, I don’t think this is a measurable impact today. I don’t think it is necessarily a substantial impact. I wouldn’t expect, by the way, that it would have much impact on business transient at all because that tends to be the kind of business that – kind of travel that is most resilient. But I do think it is a place where to the extent we need to do things around security or around immigration, we should do them quickly so that we can get back to communicate to the rest of the world that subject to the revisions in the world’s – in those policies, we really want people to come here and see us and do business here and vacation here and take back their fond memories to their homes.”
For Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta, signs of a bit of a decline in international travelers coming to the U.S. were already appearing in 2016, primarily driven by the strength of the U.S. dollar.
” … The international business system-wide in the U.S. is a relatively modest component of our business,” Nassetta said. “If you look at what we saw in the international business last year, it was down a bit in revenue. I think it was down 2.5 to 2.8 percent, I think, but 2.5 to 3 percent. That was obviously pre-travel ban. That had a lot to do with the strengthening of the dollar, in my mind.”
Nassetta also said, “My sense is you’re going to continue to see pressure on international business, and I think that pressure is largely going to be driven by even further strengthening of the dollar. If you look at what’s happened over the last 90 days, the dollar has strengthened a lot. That is not good for international inbound business. So, I think you’ll see continued impact.”
However, he said he remains optimistic that a stronger U.S. dollar indicates a stronger U.S. economy, and because 95 percent of Hilton’s business is from the U.S., that bodes well for Hilton, at least. He also said he continues to see “optimism” from U.S. corporations for 2017 with regard to their businesses, and that could potentially translate to an upswing in corporate travel business.
As for the travel ban, Nassetta said, “… We’ve been tracking it as carefully as we can. We have not seen any material impact as a consequence of what’s happened over the last two or three weeks. We obviously will keep watching it and keep an eye on it, but nothing in anyway material that’s come from it at this point.”
Nassetta’s comments were echoed by Wyndham Worldwide CEO Stephen Holmes as well, when asked if the company’s timeshare business, particularly in Orlando, had been impacted.
“We’re really not. We’re not seeing any impact from it,” Holmes said. “Obviously, we don’t see a lot of tours on the timeshare side from those seven countries. We don’t have linguistics in every country down in Orlando or in any of our sales centers. So we would not necessarily be touring people from the countries that have now been put on the, or were put on the frozen zone. So we have not seen anything. And frankly, our whole philosophy as a business is inviting everybody in. So we have a very broad view of the world traveler that we bring into our hotels and into our timeshare.”