For nearly 30 years, Chris Thompson touted Florida as a tourist destination, eventually becoming president and CEO of the state’s official tourism marketing corporation.
He left Visit Florida in late 2012 to take on a larger task: promoting the entire United States to the rest of the world as president and CEO of Brand USA.
The nonprofit corporation was established by the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, formed as the Corporation for Travel Promotion in 2010 and started doing business in May 2011 as Brand USA. The corporation is funded with private dollars, mostly from the travel industry, and money paid by international visitors to the Visa Waiver Program.
While Thompson travels frequently for his job, he said that when he eventually retires, he looks forward to being a consumer of travel rather than a marketer.
“There’s still many parts of the world that I’ve not visited that I look forward to doing when it’s me doing it on my own dime and on my own time,” he said.
Thompson spoke to the Miami Herald by phone about the efforts to draw more foreign tourists to the United States — and Florida’s key role in that endeavor.
There are 38 visa waiver countries. These are countries where we don’t require a visa for them to travel here. Every two years, visitors from those countries have to pay a $14 fee. Ten dollars of that gets set aside in a tourism promotion trust fund and we have the ability to draw down on $100 million a year. What’s important about that is it’s not an automatic appropriation. We have to bring private sector contributions to the table.
In our first year of existence, they gave us a little bit of a break and they gave us a two-to-one match. We needed $50 million worth of contributions, cash or in-kind, to draw down on the $100 million that’s available to us. And in that first year we brought $60 million to the table. And then last year was the first year that we had to bring $100 million of contributions to the table and we brought $130 million to the table.
So it’s been a very strong and satisfying response from the industry that sees the value proposition that we’ve created here in this public-private partnership and continues to invest and continues to contribute to it in very compelling ways.
So we’re now actively engaged in all of our marketing channels in about 20 markets around the word. I think our biggest challenge is in being deployed in those 20 markets, we’re having to navigate different cultures and different mediums of opportunity within those countries. So I think our ongoing challenge is for us to understand the cultures, understand the marketing channels and continue to find ways for us to optimize the deployment of our marketing channels in those markets and get the highest and most productive uses and returns on investment.
And even though we have $100 million that the federal government has made available to us and we’ve matched that with $100 million of industry contributions, when you’re trying to deploy around the world in that many markets, you still have to be very vigilant as it relates to being efficient and effective with the deployment of those resources in order to get the return and in order for us to maximize our reach.
We’re actively promoting in the Asian markets, so countries like Australia are very actively involved over there and have been a major player in promoting themselves successfully for a lot of years. When you’re talking about us promoting to some of our major established markets like the UK, you’ve got a lot of the nearby developed countries that are also promoting to the UK: Spain and France and other markets that are nearer and closer by the UK market. It really just depends on which part of the world you’re talking about and in what proximity the developed nations are to those markets and our ability to be able to attract them from in many cases what amounts to be, other than Canada and Mexico, to be a long-haul trip.
Obviously having spent the majority of my [destination marketing organization] career in Florida, I’m keenly aware of the state of Florida’s focus and otherwise benefits from international visitation. As it relates to Miami and Dade County, I think your community there shares a very distinct pleasure that not many can speak to — actually I would say, none can speak to — where I think nearly half your visitation comes from international markets. That’s a significant contribution to a community like Miami. And probably there’s no other, on a percentage basis, no other city or county in the country that can lay that same claim. So I think Miami as a city is keenly important to us because its international visitation is so keenly important to them and the same would apply to the state.
What we’re trying to focus on is you’re going to continue to travel to those destinations because they are the gateways, they’re the most familiar, they’re the ones that international visitors have traveled to frequently in the past, that they’re most comfortable with. But a lot of what we’re doing is also promoting not only to but through and beyond those gateways. That’s not to take away from the visitation those gateways have enjoyed in the past, and I think this is an important point … it’s in the instance that they’re considering going somewhere else, another country, then we want to make sure that we promote all that is the United States of America … which includes those gateways cities and states but also there are many opportunities beyond those gateway cities and states that would help us overcome that “been there, done that” mentality.
I guess I’m kind of like a proud parent. … I love all my children.
What we did here recently, we just launched it [and] we’re taking it around the world this summer, is we’ve launched a culinary guide. The guide is called “Great American Food Stories” and the byline is “Experience the USA One Dish at a Time.” And in that guide we have featured 51 celebrity chefs from around the country, both in major destinations that are well recognized and otherwise. And we’re telling stories about the United States of America through culinary opportunities that these chefs are telling on our behalf and otherwise creating through the recipes that they’ve included in the culinary guide that define the establishments that they run, the cities where they reside and also the regions of the country where they are located.