by By Geoff Freeman | January 25, 2012
Geoff FreemanWhat a long way we have come. It was just over two years ago -- in 2009 -- when we were under attack from Washington. The White House and members of Congress from both political parties were actively discouraging American businesses from participating in trade shows, incentive programs and other highly productive face-to-face opportunities.
But maybe, just maybe, that low point in our political relationships presented our industry with the golden opportunity it needed. Standing together, we began to build among elected leaders a deeper understanding of travel and its unique power to create American jobs, strengthen American businesses and drive local economies. Nowhere is this truer than the sea change we have produced in the Obama administration's view of travel. Today, our industry enjoys an enhanced relationship with the president, and we are working with an administration that has come to see travel as a critical component of a stronger economy.
Over the past three years, President Obama has welcomed industry leaders into the White House to discuss our key priorities, explicitly encouraged business travel, enacted into law the Travel Promotion Act to market the United States around the globe and, in a momentous occasion at Walt Disney World, called for a national travel and tourism strategy that improves America's visa process, streamlines the entry experience and makes the U.S. a more attractive destination for international visitors.
The meetings industry stands to benefit greatly from President Obama's recent announcement. An inefficient visa process cost the U.S. more than 70 million visitors and $606 billion in spending over the past decade. Potential wait times of more than 75 days to simply receive a visa interview in China and Brazil often drive these travelers to alternative destinations. Great Britain, Germany, France, Australia and other countries from every corner of the globe have benefited from America's dysfunctional travel process.

Streamlining our visa system can make the U.S. more competitive. Many multinational companies claim they no longer hold their major meetings in the States because of the difficulty of getting their overseas employees into the country. The Consumer Electronics Association and many other premiere trade show organizers frequently highlight the thousands of convention attendees lost annually due to the complexity of receiving a visa to enter our country.
President Obama's recent remarks are the clearest signal ever sent from the White House that the meetings industry, and the broader travel industry, are critical to America's economic health. The industry's ability to create jobs, strengthen business operations and drive spending that powers local economies is both unique and of first-order importance for an economic recovery stuck in neutral.
Most notably, the president's call for a national travel strategy is a sign that our industry has arrived.  No longer is travel an afterthought -- the industry and the 14 million jobs it supports are now front and center in a highly charged political environment and campaign season that is sure to see great debate over fast fixes for an ailing economy.  
Our newfound political attention also provides a unique opportunity to advance a host of other reforms that could benefit all aspects of the travel industry, including improving our nation's aviation infrastructure, reforming TSA security checkpoints to benefit frequent and trusted travelers, and blocking punitive taxes that discourage Americans from flying, renting cars and staying in hotels.
In the coming days, the U.S. Travel Association will launch its Vote Travel campaign to provide all voices in the travel industry with an opportunity to be heard during this important political season.  Now, more than ever, we must keep our foot on the pedal and encourage policies that can strengthen both our country and industry. You can join our campaign by becoming a part of U.S. Travel's Power of Travel grassroots army (
We've arrived. It is now up to us to maximize our opportunity. If we choose not to capitalize, there are plenty of other industries interested in taking our place at the podium.  
Geoff Freeman is the Chief Operating Officer at the U.S. Travel Association.