by Ann Shepphird | July 01, 2017

On January 27, six days into the Trump presidency, an executive order was signed that banned U.S. entry to citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days. It also indefinitely halted refugees from Syria. The action immediately sparked protests at airports across the United States and was followed by a number of court rulings blocking the order (followed by a new, revised executive order and then more court rulings blocking that order).

Although the travel bans were never officially implemented, the confusion they wrought-not to mention more recent restrictions banning electronic devices on airlines coming from certain countries and tough new visa-vetting practices-have caused a huge disruption in travel to the United States.

The news has continued to be filled with stories of how the disruptions are affecting the meeting and events industry, from that of a French historian scheduled to deliver a keynote address but detained at the Houston airport for 10 hours to the Iranian government temporarily revoking visas for the U.S. wrestling team heading to Iran for the World Cup. By March 30, the front page of USA Today was blaring: "Travel ban could cost $18 billion in tourism."

But what, really, does all this mean for meeting and event organizers and the destinations that host their functions? For some associations, it has meant a decrease in attendance. "The travel ban has been particularly problematic for scientific and medical associations, which count on international attendance for their meetings," said John Graham, president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives.

Graham pointed to two reasons for a drop in attendance. The first is fear. "Even though there is no ban, people are afraid they're not going to be able to get into the country or not be able to get out," he said. "Even though that might be unrealistic or an overstatement, people are afraid and choosing not to attend some meetings because of it."

Henry Rousso's story is the type that fuels those fears. The noted French historian, who was born in Egypt, was scheduled to deliver a keynote address at the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study in Texas in February. But after his 11-hour flight from Paris, he was detained at the Houston airport by U.S. immigration authorities for more than 10 hours, where he said he was questioned, fingerprinted and subjected to a body search.

Officials at Texas A&M, which had invited Rousso to speak, responded: President Michael Young contacted law professors to intervene with the authorities, and Rousso was released and ultimately able to deliver his lecture.

Rousso later posted on Twitter that his "situation was nothing compared to some of the people I saw who couldn't be defended as I was." He later reported that "what I know, having loved this country forever, is that the United States is no longer quite the United States."

This brings up the other reason Graham said some people are choosing not to travel to the United States: in protest. "They're saying that the U.S. used to be a welcoming country but now, not so much so. (They) are not going to support the U.S. by traveling there," said Graham. He noted that some U.S. associations might decide it's easier to do business in Canada or Mexico, and not just because of the travel ban but because the dollar is particularly strong right now. "This might be a real opportunity for Mexico because it's close and they have attractive venues."


Speaking Out

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, also noted the strong dollar-in addition to the media coverage of the various travel bans-as being factors in a possible fall in U.S. travel. He said that, so far, his organization hasn't seen a big drop in tourism numbers in 2017 but that doesn't mean it's not time for the travel industry to start speaking out. Dow noted that the administration's rollout of a campaign promise to keep America safe wasn't as "elegantly rolled out as it could have been."

As a response to this inelegance, U.S. Travel gathered more than 325 representatives of the travel industry to go to Capitol Hill on March 29. They held more than 300 congressional meetings to push the message that "security is key, but it must be balanced with strong messages of welcome to legitimate international business and leisure travelers," according to its press release.

The security message is important, Dow said, because one or two incidents can deeply impact a destination; he pointed to Egypt, France and Turkey as countries where the tourism industry has been devastated by acts of terrorism. "The message needs to be that we are closed to terrorists, but everyone else is welcome," said Dow.


Welcome Messages

A number of DMOs have stepped up with their own message of welcome. In New York City, NYC & Company recently shared an update to its 2017 travel forecast that showed a loss of 300,000 international visitors compared to 2016, marking the first drop in visitation since the start of the Great Recession in 2008. The updated travel forecast, produced by Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics Company and NYC & Company's longtime data provider, took into account the changing attitudes about travel and access to the United States that had taken place since the previous forecast was announced in October 2016, before the presidential election.

In response, NYC & Company announced a new international communications and marketing campaign titled "New York City-Welcoming the World" that was launched in March and targets leading international visitors markets, including the United Kingdom, Mexico, Germany and Spain. Similar campaigns have been launched by other DMOs and were highlighted during National Travel & Tourism Week, May 8-12. The Wyoming Office of Tourism, Maryland's Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County, Visit Seattle, the San Francisco Travel Association and Discover Los Angeles are just some of the organizations that have posted messages indicating the world was welcome to their destinations.

In Los Angeles, the sentiment was spelled out by hundreds of volunteers. Working with Discover Los Angeles, some 1,000 workers from hotels, restaurants, airports and other tourism businesses stood in a park just north of the Los Angeles International Airport runways and held up signs that spelled out "Welcome" in English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 6. The event followed a new music video created by Discover Los Angeles called "Everyone is Welcome" that features people of various ethnic backgrounds in and around city landmarks including Venice Beach, Olvera Street, the Original Farmers Market and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Creating a Human Touch

All of these efforts create a human touch and, as Dow pointed out, separate politics from travel. "People are able to separate politics from a place," said Dow, citing an example. "No one agrees with the human rights of China, but people want to visit. People are able to look beyond politics."

Separating politics from people and places is something that the U.S. wrestling team has gotten quite good at. Those skills came into play in February during the height of the reaction to the proposed travel ban when athletes' visas were revoked by the Iranian government just weeks before they were scheduled to compete in the freestyle World Cup in Iran.

"The Iranian government's knee-jerk reaction to our policies was to not grant our visas," said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling. "There was a short time where we were not going to be able to go to the World Cup due to the reaction by the Iranian foreign ministry."

Luckily, the Iranian Wrestling Federation was able to convince its country's government to reconsider. Not only did the U.S. team compete but it received a very warm welcome, with reports of dozens of fans and reporters greeting the wrestlers when they arrived the airport in Kermanshah, Iran.

"When we go to Iran, we feel a genuine affection from the general population for our team and our athletes," said Bender, who pointed out that from the very start, the White House made it clear that exceptions were going to be made for sporting events and athletes. "We saw that firsthand with archers from Iran allowed to come to Las Vegas for their recent World Cup event."

That said, Bender said his team will be hosting the Iranian Wrestling Federation in Iowa City, Iowa, next April and will be paying close attention to any new regulations, especially as obtaining a visa has always been particularly difficult for Iranians due to the lack of an American embassy.


Working Together

To that end, Bender said that the federations would continue to work together as they always have. "In 2013, when wrestling was fighting for its life after the (International Olympic Committee) recommended it come off the Olympic program, it was evident how closely aligned the federations are in terms of the ability to set aside any politics," he said.

In fact, the U.S. team's strongest allies in the sport are Iran, Russia and Cuba. "We're friends with all the people our country isn't friends with. What's refreshing is that when I travel to a place like Iran or Russia, I don't find this foundational hatred for our country," he said. "Sport is a fabulous diplomatic platform by which countries can set aside differences." Illustrating this is the Olympic Games, something seen every two years when, no matter what is happening in the world, countries march together.

In a way, the experience of USA Wrestling shows that people working together can play a big part in overcoming whatever comes out of the government. From volunteers holding up welcome signs in Los Angeles to university lawyers negotiating for the release of a keynote speaker in Texas to wrestling federations working to make sure their athletes can compete anywhere in the world, the power of those at the grassroots level has never been more important. And isn't bringing people together to create something bigger than themselves one of the best aspects of meetings and events?