After sharing data during a Thursday media briefing that shows the percentage of Americans who plan to take a spring break trip dropped during the last week of January from 16 percent to 12 percent, U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow said it remains unclear when travel will fully recover, "but it certainly will take longer if we don't have the ability to open up business travel, which will basically increase jobs."
Dow said that reopening business travel will be related to Covid-19 vaccine news, but added that "corporate travel departments are telling people not to travel right now," he said. "They want to have the confidence for people to travel. When they do start to travel more, and they are starting now with small meetings, one thing that will spur it is when one organization sees another pick up market share because people had been there face-to-face. We've seen it happen over and over again. That will be a driving factor."
Regarding the return of large-scale conventions and meetings, Dow said it would be important for governors to look at the caps they are putting on capacity. "You have some states saying there can be no more than 250 people in any single location," he said. "We really have to with data and science show that people coming to a meeting or convention are very different in protocols than, say, a mass gathering of a big festival. In a meeting or convention, you control the registration, you control the spacing, you control the seating. It just doesn't make sense to me to say 250 because, as I like to say, 250 people in a phone booth is a lot more crowded than 250 people in the San Antonio convention center, which has space to have thousands and thousands of people."
It's important to get those guidelines consistently in place, Dow added, as well as to have people holding meetings show how it safely can be done. That effort will start with smaller meetings, then bigger meetings, then conventions and trade shows, he said. "I think we'll see a time when the hotels are even monitored and rated in the travel industry just like they are with quality standards. But you really have to understand that a meeting and trade show are very different than a large gathering without those controls."
Dow anticipates the meetings side of the industry in 2022 will recover strongly, and will "come back more quickly than you think," he said. "When people see it works, they'll start to bring their meetings back."
One potential concern in some states could be the easing or elimination protocols, such as the removal this week in Texas and Mississippi of all mask mandates, which could challenge venue enforcement of regulations for meetings and affect planners' site selection.
Deploying a consistent set of standards around the world will be critical to get international travel going again, Dow said, similar to when you go through airport security lanes or customs.
"We're very supportive of having people tested that come into this country," he said. "That will be a gate to opening it up. The next most important is the U.S. government could set a specific date they will push toward—nothing to guarantee—but push toward opening travel. How about saying mid-May or May 30? We will look to get the steps in place, and we'll be prudent and smart, but set a date so people can begin planning."
The United Kingdom last week announced international travel would restart no earlier than May 17, after commissioning a review due April 12 of the measures necessary to do so.
Though getting all markets open is the goal, getting the Canadian border open is "extraordinarily important," as it's the largest country for travel into the United States, Dow said. The Canada-U.S. border may be the easiest to reopen and make the most sense to start with, with other countries to follow.
Dow noted that the $1.9 trillion U.S. Covid-19 relief package, passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives and now moving through the U.S. Senate, has some "very helpful provisions," but the industry needs a lot more.
USTA EVP of public affairs and policy Tori Emerson Barnes agreed, saying the Paycheck Protection Program has been incredibly successful, and the resources Congress added to the package also are helpful, but the March 31 PPP deadline needs be extended, and Congress needs to allow another round of funding for the hardest-hit businesses. She added that future relief efforts should include travel tax credits for individuals and families, as well as for "businesses and organizations to conduct and attend safe conventions, business meetings and events."
Barnes also noted USTA's support of the bipartisan Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act of 2021, which was introduced in Congress Feb. 25. "The act contains key tax incentives to revitalize large meetings and events, assist entertainment venues, bring back service jobs and spur individual travel," she said. "It will directly add 1.7 million jobs back into the economy and contribute over $663 billion to the country's [gross domestic product]."