by Michael J. Shapiro | May 01, 2017
The messaging coming from the White House in the early months of 2017 has seemed, at times, at odds with the mission of Brand USA, the marketing organization that seeks to increase inbound travel to the U.S. from overseas. The group, however, is undeterred and recently launched a major campaign in a number of international markets to put out the welcome mat for would-be visitors.

M&C caught up with Brand USA president Chris Thompson to discuss how the organization plans to reassure tourists and attendees alike that the U.S. is open for their business.

What's your biggest challenge now in bringing people to the States?
It's mostly a perception issue. Whenever we have a new administration, there are changes to any number of policies; it's just that some of the things this administration is focused on have a direct impact on us.

One of the things we're required to do is to communicate timely and accurate visa and entry policies. Here's what I can tell you: Nothing has legally changed for anyone around the world in terms of what they need to do to secure a visa. And other than the one policy change as it relates to electronics coming from eight countries, nothing about how people enter the United States has changed legally.

There's been a lot of talk about changing policy, and all the noise around that has created a perception problem. What we need to do is to separate the perceptions from the realities. For locations where we have embassies or consular services, we often encourage visitors to go in and meet with [our representatives]. They can answer questions and calm anxieties.

Beyond the consumer campaign, how are you working to combat the noise?
We're actively engaged in 40 markets around the world. We have travel-trade relationships with tour operators, wholesalers and meeting planners in more than 20 markets. We're able to get a pulse of what people are thinking and how they're reacting. In some cases, suppliers are telling us that they're having record years. To cut through the noise, it's important to separate leading indicators -- like search numbers, polling and advance bookings -- from lagging indicators, which are the visitation numbers we rely on, and which we don't get until several months later. What people give an opinion on and what they do can be very different.

Up to this point, then, what's the biggest factor affecting U.S. inbound travel?
The most compelling issue that has been influencing any softness in actual travel to the United States has been the strong dollar that we've been dealing with for going on two years. That's been our biggest challenge in nearly every market.