With the majority of global travel bookings occurring online, Brand USA and Tourism Exchange USA have joined forces to help introduce international travelers to historically underrepresented destinations, accommodations, activities, and experiences in the United States.
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As global travel spend continues to surge, digital transactions are becoming increasingly dominant throughout the industry. That progress has advanced unevenly, however, and with only about 50 percent of global tours and activities available online — the small businesses that do offer bookings online have limited access to global distribution.
Bridging the digital gap between businesses, communities, and global sellers is crucial for making international travel more meaningful and equitable. Two-thirds of all global travel was booked online pre-pandemic, and Statista projects that number will reach 74 percent by 2027.
That’s why Brand USA, the destination marketing organization (DMO) for the United States, recently partnered with Tourism Exchange USA, a platform where suppliers can manage live availability, pricing, and bookings across multiple distributors. The primary goal of the partnership is to enable small tourism businesses and local DMOs to tap into this demand at a particularly opportune time — according to Skift Research, international travel spend is up 33 percent from 2022.
SkiftX spoke with Staci Mellman, chief marketing officer at Brand USA, and Nate Huff, president of Tourism Exchange USA, to explore why traditional approaches tend to exclude small businesses and understand how their companies’ collaboration is helping bring more international and domestic travelers beyond gateway cities to lesser-known destinations accommodations and attractions in the United States.
Traditional Development Models Present Challenges for Small Businesses
The gap between travelers’ demand for emotionally meaningful experiences and the mandates that major travel companies face to reach commercial objectives is well-documented. But even as small businesses focus on forging emotional connections, it is increasingly difficult to scale their efforts using traditional product development models.
Incurring high manual development costs and investing months or years of work may be table stakes for global corporations — but for small businesses, it can mean the end of the road.
“Even if a small business can take reservations online, they may not have access to global distribution,” Mellman said. “And, even if they’ve solved for distribution on consumer channels, that’s still only the retail side, which means tour operators aren’t able to access commissionable rates. At the end of the day, connectivity is a central challenge for everyone involved, and that’s what we’re trying to solve in partnership with the Tourism Exchange.”
The Exchange serves as a platform fostering diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the tourism economy by connecting historically underrepresented businesses and communities to global markets. By collaborating with the Exchange, Brand USA aims to differentiate the U.S. from competitors through a myriad of unique experiences, empowering new markets and amplifying the impact of international visitation.
Brand USA and Tourism Exchange Collaborate Toward Common Goals
Tourism Exchange USA is an open digital marketplace that connects suppliers and distributors around the world with live inventory and rates. The underlying technology is currently powering independent exchanges in Australia, Japan, and the UK.
“The Exchange is like a digital toolkit,” Huff said. “Our primary function is creating connections between suppliers and distributors — like a match-making service for tourism products. We’re not an online travel agency (OTA), and we’re not trying to provide products directly to consumers. Our goal is to expand the reach and bookability of domestic tourism suppliers globally. We’re letting suppliers and distributors decide whether they want to work together.”
Suppliers can opt in to direct relationships with distributors, who can set their terms, commission rates, and other variables. Any qualifying business or travel product seller can connect through the Exchange, including accommodations, attractions, experiences, events, and retail products. And while offline businesses can use the platform to transition online, businesses with an existing digital presence can use it to achieve both market and channel expansion.
“Maybe a business already has a product on Google and TripAdvisor, but they are interested in connecting directly with market-specific international channels,” Huff said. “As we continue to grow our global connectivity, we hope to offer niche opportunities for businesses to connect internationally, expand market reach, and consider how that diversified approach benefits their broader revenue management objectives.”
Creating Prosperity and Increasing Equity Through a National DMO License
Today’s primary distribution channels on the Exchange leverage global relationships with OTAs, but there is planned expansion into booking sites, tour operators, DMOs, and more. Brand USA’s engagement helps push this vision further by investing in a National DMO License, lowering the barrier of entry for regional, state, and local DMOs to join the Exchange.
“The National DMO License connects Brand USA’s mission of creating community prosperity and directly addresses some of the challenges we are hoping to alleviate for destinations across the U.S., like moving visitors beyond gateways, improving equity of travel’s economic impact, and better connecting visitors with authentic experiences and communities across the U.S,” Mellman said.
Through the collaboration, Brand USA and Tourism Exchange hope to bring tens of thousands of new U.S. travel products online in the next five years. Travel South USA, the first region to take advantage of the new license, has already worked with individual states and local DMOs to promote educational sessions and in-person workshops that have reached hundreds of destinations, suppliers, and distributors.
“We’re excited to be the first region to adopt the Tourism Exchange USA platform,” said Liz Bittner, president and CEO of Travel South. “We are convinced this is game-changing for hundreds of small tourism businesses. This fall, we have invested time and resources in training hundreds of DMOs and their business partners through webinars, presentations at state tourism conferences, and one-on-one meetings. Our goal for international visitation is to reach $10 billion by 2026, and having our authentic food, music, culture, and outdoor experiences available for sale through our valued travel trade partnerships worldwide is vital to our growth. As DMOs, we must include destination marketing and stewardship, which makes it imperative to clear the path for bookings using technology advancements.”
Progress to Date and Future Outlook
Recognizing that this evolution is a marathon, not a sprint, Brand USA’s initial efforts have focused on education and early adopters. After the first year of the partnership, 13 states are actively participating in the Exchange, with 20 states expected to be fully onboarded by 2024.
Already, the Tourism Exchange has signaled its growing significance in shaping the future of the U.S. travel industry by integrating into existing workstreams, participating extensively in trade shows, and participating in global development efforts.
“There are so many amazing places and memorable experiences that want to welcome more visitors but haven’t had the tools,” Huff said.
“By improving the reach of these businesses and communities, we’re expanding international audiences’ understanding of what’s available to them across the U.S.,” Mellman said. “Research shows that when travelers understand the full breadth of experiences available, they tend to stay longer and do more or demonstrate higher intent to return sooner. That’s exactly what we want to achieve.”
Learn more about Tourism Exchange USA.
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