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President Donald Trump met with 14 travel industry CEOs including U.S. Travel Association’s Roger Dow on Tuesday at the White House to discuss the United States’ lost share in international visitor arrivals, the visa waiver program, Brand USA’s reauthorization, infrastructure improvement, and promoting a welcoming message to international travelers.
The president’s travel ban, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, was also broached, said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs, who attended the meeting. “We discussed the ban with the president and told him that without security there can be no travel,” he said.
The White House invited the CEOs., including Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, Hilton Worldwide CEO Chris Nassetta, and Wyndham Worldwide CEO Geof Ballotti, because they are U.S. Travel’s largest members and $1 billion-plus corporations, said Grella. Tori Barnes, U.S. Travel’s senior vice president for government relations, and Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s daughter and advisor, were the only women in the meeting.
“Our discussion with the president was simple: a strong flow of international business and leisure travelers into the U.S. reduces the trade deficit and creates an outsize number of American jobs,” said Dow in a statement. “There is a global international travel boom, and there is a huge opportunity to greatly expand upon the already strong economy.”
The meeting was the first time the president has met with U.S. Travel, the U.S. travel industry’s D.C.-based lobby organization, since taking office. The meeting comes nearly 20 months into his presidency. The president was in the meeting for the last half hour, and the CEOs met with his staff for 45 minutes prior to that, Grella said.
Besides the president, White House officials attending included Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, and Chris Liddell, deputy chief of staff for policy coordination.
Grella said U.S. Travel is happy with the meeting and the conversation it had with the president and his staff. “The president came in before he even sat down and said, ‘talk to me about international travel,'” he said. “He wasn’t like ‘what do you want?’ That was a good sign that he was prepared for this conversation and it wasn’t necessary to start from the very beginning. He noted his familiarity with our industry through his unique business career.”
Trump asked why the United States’ share of international arrivals have declined in recent years. “He was very inquisitive about that and seemed like he genuinely wanted to understand,” said Grella. “He was interested to get underneath it and solve the puzzle. He did say he wanted to be helpful and supportive.”
U.S. Travel made some recommendations to Trump and his staff, said Grella. “He and his team were asking for what they could do,” he said. “We told them that we need a national strategy to work toward something along the lines of the previous administration’s goal to grow visitor numbers to a certain level by a certain year, but they didn’t commit to anything,” he said.
“We also mentioned the visa waiver program and the (Trump) administration has previously embraced it so we knew going in they would be receptive to our point of view,” said Grella.
The CEOs also underscored the current strength of the U.S. economy and the opportunity to use travel to accelerate growth, said Grella. “Kudlow’s presence in the meeting tells you that the economic conversation was front and center,” he said. “The president is fond of economic milestones. It’s the first meeting and we’re making progress.”
With distractions such as the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book on the Trump Administration, the 2018 midterm elections, and the Special Counsel investigation all making headlines on Tuesday, it’s unclear how much of the president’s attention the group got.
For some kind of context of Trump’s state of mind going into the 1:30 p.m. EST meeting, at 10:58 a.m. he tweeted a criticism of NBC for its handling of the Harvey Weinstein story. Trump also tweeted about Tropical Storm Gordon at 2:24 p.m. and cautioned everyone in the storm’s path to be safe.
Chris Kennedy, senior director of strategic communications at U.S. Travel, said the meeting was a U.S. Travel meeting and not a meeting with the U.S. Travel-backed Visit U.S. Coalition, a group of 15 travel industry and related organizations such as the National Retail Federation and the National Restaurant Association, which didn’t get an invite from the White House. Although some of the meeting attendees like Marriott and Hilton are members of Visit U.S. organizations such as the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
U.S. Travel launched the coalition in January to work with the White House and Congress on sending a welcoming message to international travelers. The group was formed after Trump’s first year in office that saw travel bans, a declining share of international travelers, and proposed budget cuts to the Transportation Security Administration and Amtrak.
The coalition’s goals include convincing the administration to prioritize international travel to the United States, expanding and renaming the visa waiver program, implementing more screening technology at airports, and getting more travelers to participate in trusted traveler programs such as Global Entry.
Members of the coalition, however, met with Stephen Moore, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a senior economic advisor to the Trump campaign who continues to advise the president, earlier this year. Moore wrote a column in the conservative newspaper The Washington Times calling on Trump to extend his “America is open for business” message to international travelers.
We want to work with @POTUS to embrace int'l inbound travel as a national priority while maintaining high security standards. Read our plan here –> https://t.co/fqyIqf8QrA #VisitUS pic.twitter.com/xpVrTgc8JC
— Visit U.S. Coalition (@welcometotheus) September 4, 2018
That the travel industry secured a meeting on Trump’s calendar is a positive development, but it doesn’t mean Trump is ready to reverse course and embrace foreigners entering the United States. President Barack Obama and the travel industry didn’t get off on the right foot, either. Shortly after Obama took office in 2009, he made a statement criticizing federal employees for traveling to meetings and conventions that he saw as wasteful government spending.
Obama eventually understood that international visitor arrivals were key to rebuilding the U.S. economy in the aftermath of the global recession, and met with U.S. Travel and travel CEOs four times during his two terms, according to Dow.
Skift reached out to Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and Wyndham for comment on the meeting but they deferred all questions to U.S. Travel. U.S. airline CEOs met with Trump in February to lobby for infrastructure improvement and relaxed regulations. But these airlines, including United, Delta, and Southwest, aren’t U.S. Travel members.