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.
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“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.
Q. What are the goals of Brand USA and how close are you to meeting those?
A. Our overall mission is to grow international visitation, spend and market share for the United States. … Last year, 2013, was a record year in both visitation of nearly 70 million and spend of nearly $181 billion. And our overall goal other than just annually increasing visitation, spend and market share, is to hit 100 million international visitors by 2021. So that’s not quite a full seven years from now. We have about 30 million more visitors to attract on an annual basis and about $70 billion in additional spend to attract.
Q. How daunting a task does that seem right now?
A. That’s a compounded annual growth of maybe 4.5 percent a year. That doesn’t seem like a large number because it’s a mid-single digit growth rate. We’re optimistic we can hit the number. But it’s going to take a concerted effort on our part as we continue to grow this public-private partnership with the federal government and bring the private sector to the table. It’s going to require ongoing support from our stakeholders, which are the suppliers of travel — the destinations and the brands that represent the products and the experiences here in the United States — and then the facilitators of travel or the buyers of travel, which are the travel trade and the travel media.
Q. On the subject of the private funding from stakeholders, how is that funding shaping up compared to your expectations?
A. I have to say I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. It’s something I could not have anticipated, as it relates to the strength of it, when I came. We’re in our fourth year of existence and the final quarter of our third year of operation. In our first year of existence, the federal government through the passage of the Travel Promotion Act, gave us the opportunity to get a two-to-one match.
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.
Q. What are your biggest challenges in trying to drive more international visitors?
A. Our biggest challenge is that we’re basically promoting all that is the United States of America — the 50 states, the five territories, the District of Columbia — to the world. So if you look at who our target audience is potentially, it’s anybody around the world who either dreams about traveling to the United States or otherwise has been to the United States and we want to invite them to discover it again for the first time.
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.
Q. What countries give the U.S. the most competition?
A. Most of the developed countries around the world now recognize the value of travel and tourism as an economic engine for their economies. There are lots of answers to that question; it depends on what part of the world you’re talking about.
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.
Q. How important is Florida — and South Florida especially — to your efforts to draw visitors from the rest of the world?
A. As it relates to international visitations, attracting visitors from outside our borders, Florida is always in the top three with New York and California as a state, and many of the cities within Florida are in the top 10 as it relates to individual destinations that attract and benefit from international visitation.
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.
Q. What are the top draws in the U.S.? And how are you trying to help potential visitors see beyond those?
A. Other than Canada and Mexico, everybody else has to come by air. So they’re going to come and they have to come through our gateway cities and the states that those gateway cities are in. So there’s a lot of benefit associated with the fact that they have to come through those gateways. …
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.
Q. Can you just kind of pick out a couple of the unique or out of the box ways that you’re trying to get the word out about the wide variety of things that the U.S. has to offer?
A. Culinary is one of the things that is very very compelling and in a lot of ways, culinary opportunities define our destination as a whole, that is the United States, with things that would be considered Americana. More importantly, culinary is also a way for us to dig into the fabric of what makes communities around the country unique. Every community, large or small, well- recognized or otherwise, has a culinary story to tell. In a lot of ways, the culinary offerings that are in those destinations define those destinations.
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.
Q. I’m curious where your last vacation was?
A. I haven’t had a long vacation in awhile to where I’ve just totally gone off for a couple of weeks and disconnected. I’ve had had a lot of mini ones here recently that were really tied to family getaways or otherwise. So most recently this summer I have been to Boston, Massachusetts, and Houston, Texas, and those were kind of little getaway weekends. Coming up, heading out to Palm Springs, California, again with my wife to visit friends out there.