Former Florida tourism booster now promoting U.S. as a destination

The Miami HeraldJuly 15, 2014 

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.

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: How important is Florida to your efforts to draw visitors from the rest of the world?

A: As it relates to international visitations, 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.

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