Monday, September 25, 2006

The Nation's No. 1 Travel Agent

By: Singer, Paul, National Journal, 9/23/2006

* Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is working with the travel industry to boost tourism to the United State and to plead the industry's case to other federal agencies.

As the federal government moves to secure American borders, the U.S. travel industry has enlisted an influential new lobbyist to press its case for protecting the lucrative international tourism market: Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

In an odd alignment of government and industry interests, Gutierrez essentially asked travel and tourism officials to help him develop an agenda for boosting their business and to provide him with talking points for pleading their case with other federal agencies that control the borders.

The secretary's focus on travel issues is so intense that Al Frink, the Commerce Department's "manufacturing czar," told an industry gathering in July, "I think that the secretary is impassioned, he's committed. He's even at the point where [in the department's senior offices] it's often said, 'Is there another subject that we have on the table right now besides tourism?' And, actually, I would say the answer is no."

According to Commerce Department statistics, international travel to the United States fell after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, dropping from $103 billion in 2000 to $80 billion in 2003. It returned to the $103 billion level only last year. Tourism is an important component of the U.S. balance of trade, making up about 27 percent of the nation's total service exports.

Since 1995, the U.S. has dropped from second place behind France as the most popular tourist destination to third place behind Spain, and China's booming tourism industry threatens to push the U.S. into fourth. Travel executives argue that the U.S. share of the market is shrinking not only because other countries are trying harder but also because U.S. security concerns are making it tougher for foreigners to get visas. The State Department issued 7.6 million nonimmigrant visas in 2001, but only 4.9 million in 2003 and 5.4 million in 2005.

The industry's most immediate concern is the government's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which establishes new travel document requirements for visitors crossing the Canadian or Mexican border. Industry executives fear that it could eliminate a significant portion of the 15 million trips that Canadians made to the U.S. in 2005.

For more than a decade, the U.S. hospitality industry has been trying (with limited success) to make the case for greater government attention to travel as an economic engine. In 2003, at the nadir of international arrivals, Congress approved $50 million for the Commerce Department to create an international advertising and promotional campaign to encourage individuals to travel to the United States. The provision, tucked into an omnibus appropriations bill, also called for the creation of an industry advisory board to help Commerce figure out how to spend the money.

But most of the $50 million was never spent. The advisory board-officially the Travel and Tourism Promotion Advisory Board-spent about $6 million for a marketing campaign in Great Britain and has $4 million earmarked for a campaign in Japan, but Congress rescinded the rest. By the time the advisory board's charter was to expire in the summer of 2005, "there was a lot of frustration," one industry source said, "and people were wondering whether it was worth renewing the charter."

Carlos Gutierrez: The U.S. government's challenge is to "allow people in who want to travel or to do business, and to keep out people who want to do us harm."

As the advisory board was winding down, the industry decided to overhaul its Washington representation. In June 2005, the Travel Industry Association of America, a sprawling collection of hospitality-related businesses that had struggled to create a unified identity, shut down its small government-affairs operation and handed the industry's lobbying efforts to the Travel Business Roundtable, an association headed by Loews Hotels Chairman Jon Tisch. Promising a "one industry, one voice" approach, TIA's new CEO-former Marriott executive Roger Dow-joined Tisch and advisory board Chairman James Rasulo, president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, and several other top travel and tourism officials for a series of meetings in Washington. In the first week of July, the group met with a handful of State Department, Homeland Security, and White House officials to emphasize the importance of international tourism to the U.S. economy and to warn that new border-security initiatives could have a disastrous effect on travel and tourism by making it almost impossible for Canadian and Mexican visitors to make spontaneous trips to the U.S.

The group apparently found a sympathetic ear in Gutierrez, a former CEO of Kellogg.

The day after the travel group announced its "productive high-level Washington meetings" in a press release, a notice in the Federal Register said that the Commerce Department was seeking nominees for a reconstituted advisory board, although it was nearly a month before the department announced its plans for the board. By August, the board's name had been shortened by dropping the word "Promotion," and its mandate had been expanded dramatically. In addition to working on a marketing campaign, the group would advise Gutierrez on "the development, creation, and implementation of a national tourism strategy." Of the 14 industry executives who make up the new board, 10-including its chairman, Rasulo-were members of the old board.

At the advisory board's first meeting in January, Gutierrez said he wanted a tourism strategy in hand in six months. "It may not be as perfectly designed as it would have been if we waited a year, but I would just ask you to think about what we're going to lose by waiting another six months," the secretary said.

In April and again in July, he returned to help shape the final recommendations that the advisory board would make to him. "If we could do one single thing for your industry and we could somehow find ways to improve the flow of visas in a way that maintains all of our national security objectives, I think that would be the single biggest thing we could do for you," Gutierrez said.

The final report, which the board presented to Gutierrez earlier this month, focused primarily on the secretary's recommended issues of improving the process for legitimate visitors to get entry visas to the U.S. while maintaining strong security protections. It also returned to the industry's initial themes-creating a national marketing campaign to sell the U.S. as a destination abroad, and revising the border transit requirements to maintain the ease of travel across the Canadian and Mexican borders.

A week later, the industry executives on the advisory board announced their "Discover America Campaign," a national marketing strategy to attract 10 million more international travelers to the U.S. each year. In public appearances, Gutierrez applauded the announcement.

While Washington bookshelves groan under the weight of advisory committee reports that have never been implemented, perhaps few have come with this kind of personal commitment from a Cabinet secretary. Beyond driving the drafting of the strategy, Gutierrez has already promised to help the industry plead its case before other agencies.

"This is not going to be resolved because we talk about it," Gutierrez told the board in July. "It's going to require a lot of follow-up, it's going to require a lot of pushing with our partners at Homeland Security, with the State Department, because we're dealing with a lot of people, we're dealing with a lot of conflicting priorities.…We at the Commerce Department may not have all the strings, we may not have all the departments reporting in to us, but we can give you access to people who make decisions, who can hear your concerns, who have the ability to address some of your concerns."

In an interview, Gutierrez said his work with travel and tourism is no different from his role with other domestic industries. "We're not in the business of business in Washington," Gutierrez told National Journal. "We don't invest money, we don't create jobs, we don't create wealth. We create an environment so that entrepreneurs and business people can do that. In the case of tourism, that's what we do: We listen to them, and then we see where government policy can help. We do that with other industries as well."

Gutierrez said the travel industry is of growing importance to the nation's economy, and a smoothly functioning visa process is critical to that growth. "There is no question that for us, national security is No. 1," he said. "Anything we do cannot compromise national security. But we believe that in that area of visas and tourists and travelers, we can be of help." The challenge for government, he said, is to "allow people in who want to travel or to do business, and to keep out people who want to do us harm."

DHS and State are moving to address some of the industry's concerns, although industry officials express frustration with the slow pace of change. In January, the departments announced an initiative for "secure borders and open doors," emphasizing the use of new technologies to improve the experience for visa applicants and visitors arriving at U.S. airports. Most of the initiative's projects are under development or in test phases, a State Department spokeswoman said, and one key piece should be rolled out any day now-yet another tourism industry advisory board.

Bound for the U.S.A.
U.S. tourism has recovered to pre-9/11 levels …

… and the U.S. ranks among top destinations …

… but growth is not as rapid as it is in other areas …

International arrivals to U.S. (by year)

Top would destinations in 2005 (in millions of international tourist arrivals)
France 76.0
Spain 55.6
U.S. 49.4
China 46.8
Italy 36.5
U.K. 30.0

First-quarter growth for 2006 (by region)
Africa 11.3%
Middle East 10.8
Asia/Pacific 7.5
Americas 2.7
U.S. 0.5
Europe 2.5

SOURCES: U.S. Commerce Department; International Trade Association, Office of Travel and Tourism Industries; World Tourism Organization

Tuners try to save sizzle

Stunt casting, Web sales and marketing gambits help stretch shows' legs

When a show opens to rave reviews and boffo B.O., producers nowadays can't just sit back and rake in the dough.

They have to prep, both from a business angle and from an artistic perspective, for the possibility of a very, very long life.

Just ask the granddaddy of Broadway tuners, "The Phantom of the Opera," still filling more than two-thirds of the house 18 years after its opening. "It takes a long-term maintenance plan to keep a show sparkly," says "Phantom" general manager Alan Wasser.

Back in the golden age, Broadway shows came and went, and even the hits turned over with some regularity: "Oklahoma!" ran five years (1943-48); "My Fair Lady" lasted 6 1/2 (1956-62).

But beginning in the 1970s, it became more and more common for popular productions to run longer and longer -- "Grease" ran eight years (1972-80), "A Chorus Line" kept kicking for 15 (1975-90) and "Cats" howled for just under 18 (1982-2000).

A handful of economic shifts on the Rialto have allowed shows to run longer. Strong tourism biz can boost a tuner's longevity; ticket buying has been simplified in the Internet age; and the global profile of Broadway fare has risen (think "The Lion King" in Shanghai).

For long-runners, the highest-profile strategy for boosting biz and buzz is, of course, the casting of a celeb or two. Producers Barry and Fran Weissler are the acknowledged masters: Their 10-year-old revival of "Chicago" has gone through a slew of stars and semi-stars, from Melanie Griffith to Huey Lewis to Brooke Shields. Usher is now appearing as smooth lawyer Billy Flynn.

Purists may grumble about possibly inappropriate casting sacrificing art for mercenary rewards, but there's no doubt the gambit can work -- not only at the box office, but sometimes even with critics.

The gross for "Chicago," for instance, skyrocketed by $250,000 -- nearly 50% -- for the first week Usher stepped into the show (he recently extended through Oct. 14). And when the Weisslers cast Reba McEntire in their revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" in 2000, the country singer thesp earned genuinely rapturous reviews that helped the struggling production -- which ran about 2 1/2 years -- eke out a little more life.

"We make lists," says Barry Weissler. "We sit down and think of interesting casting ideas." He says he keeps an eye out not only for the ability of a star to sing and dance, but also for the right texture and quality to fit a specific role.

"If they don't have the acting chops, then they have to have the charisma, the personality to hold the stage," he says. "Often we get both."

But it's not just stars who keep a show going.

As a tuner gets older, useful information about its comparative health emerges from looking back at its performance in the past. "With the amount of data we have, we're trending, we're anticipating," says Thomas Schumacher, producer of Disney Theatrical Prods., the org behind Broadway stalwarts "Beauty and the Beast" (12 years) and "Lion King" (nine years).

"We've been able to identify what the seasonal peaks and troughs are, and can prepare for them," Wasser says of "Phantom."

"Phantom" has varied its pricing by season, often following the lead of "Les Miserables," which discounted tickets during winter slowdowns as part of a strategy that helped it endure on Broadway for 16 years.

Marketing also can change according to the time of year. "During summer, you'll see us advertise all our shows together," says David Schrader, managing director and chief financial officer of Disney Theatrical. "As you get into fall, which is less about tourists, we have to sell each show individually."

Advertising becomes increasingly focused as a run goes on. Many long-runners spend a good chunk of their ad budgets in tourist publications. "Rent" (10 years) aims to reach its young-skewing target demo via a promotional partnership with Gotham pop radio station Z100.

Keeping a show's advertising campaign fluid enough to change and target different demos over time also can help create fresh interest, In 2004, "Phantom" encouraged ands to revisit with the slogan, "Remember your first time."

Movie adaptations have helped extend brands. "Chicago" brought in crowds impressed by the 2002 Oscar winner; "Phantom" piggybacked on the marketing of the 2004 pic to raise sales; and even the poorly received "Rent" movie, released in late 2005, may have contributed to the 27% boost in sales for the Broadway tuner this year, to approximately $20 million for the year to date.

Swapping out a larger theater for a smaller one also can keep a show going as fervor for tickets subsides. Currently at the Ambassador, "Chicago" has moved three times in the decade since the revival opened. "Beauty and the Beast" helped maintain supply-demand equilibrium with a move from the Palace to the smaller Lunt-Fontanne, and "The Lion King" recently shifted to the Minskoff from the New Amsterdam, a theater whose seating and pricing arrangement allowed for no discernible decrease in grosses.

The tradition of downsizing shows to keep a long run financially viable was a constant through the 1940s, '50s and '60s. At that time, producers regularly hired more than the union minimum of orchestra members to keep composers happy. The extra hands, however, were part of a "cuts list" often let go anywhere from the third week to the third year, depending on business. This approach meant shows often had a richer, more robust sound in their first six months than later.

That practice now is more infrequent, largely because no producer is willing to exceed the minimum to begin with. Cuts usually happen in areas other than the orchestra, such as sets and ensemble. The scaling back of "Beauty and the Beast" was even lampooned in a "Forbidden Broadway" number called "Beauty's Been Decreased."

Another trick is managing the money a hit show is making.

"How we handle our dollars is just as important as how we market our show," says Jeffrey Seller, one of the producers behind "Rent." "That is, we try not to overspend on it, and keep our nut low."

But the need to keep costs down must be balanced with the understanding that a show has to look spiffy. Replacing lighting equipment whose color has faded, repainting banged-up set pieces and creating costumes for new cast members all require regular spending.

When a new thesp takes over as resident "Phantom" diva Carlotta, the creation of her custom-fit wardrobe costs more than $100,000. "We put away an amount each week to put toward the cost of maintaining a production," Wasser says.

Constant creative supervision is also key. The original helmers of most long-runners -- as well as a corps of designers, choreographers and other staff -- check in regularly with productions: Michael Greif tends to select the principals for "Rent," and Harold Prince usually approves actors who go into major roles in "Phantom."

To maintain a standard of performance, supervisors monitor productions both on Broadway and on the road. "I give notes," says Peter yon Mayrhauser, production supervisor of "Phantom." "It's very good for the actors. Our biggest enemy is getting complacent."

By: Suskin, Steven, Cox, Gordon, Variety, 9/25/2006

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Lateral thinking needed to unite Caribbean and Diaspora

Uniting the Caribbean Diaspora is back on the agenda, following news that the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), under the leadership of Bahamian Secretary-General Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, is seriously trying to integrate the Diaspora in its plans, the fruit of which will be the greater contribution of our gifts, talents and abilities to our own development in the marketplace and in the Caribbean region.

Community leaders at home and overseas have lone explored this topic, but it has not gained much momentum primarily because selfish ambitions, egocentered motives, and that insular mentality that we so love to perpetuate have thwarted it. Last week, I mentioned that people of Caribbean descent do have a substantial role to play in Caribbean integration, even while they live outside the Caribbean, and the CTO'a vision and plans may just be the prescription needed at this juncture of our history. Once successfully implemented in the marketplace, perhaps our leaders will be sufficiently motivated to renew their minds, unite their efforts, and transform our region.

The willingness of the region's top tourism body to play a major role in this effort is important, given CTO's influence with its 32 government members and a slew of private-sector entities that can help provide the structure, framework, funding and political will for such an initiative. Furthermore, while CTO's mission is to provide to and through its members, the services and information needed for the development of sustainable tourism for the economic and social benefit of the Caribbean people, the fruit of the Diaspora project transcends tourism and focuses on transferring talents to help raise the bar of excellence across the region.

Already, members of the Caribbean Diaspora and Caribbean region are getting excited. In Brooklyn, a member of the Caribbean-American media commented, "Perhaps Mr. Vanderpool Wallace could appoint a CTO advisory board immediately and set up a Diaspora consortium to handle part of the PR and advertising to show his good faith," no doubt referring to the inverted prejudice that has prevailed in tourism organizations where advertising and public relations resources by-pass consultants and firms from the Caribbean and African Diaspora.

"He can lead by example," the writer continued on a list-serve that targets Caribbean writers interested in sustainable development. Then maybe the various boards of tourism would be forced to reflect on his leadership (and) example…I have engaged enough ministers of tourism of the region who have a mindset that excludes the Diaspora from meaningful participation…as we say in the Caribbean, they love to 'old talk.'"

Dr. Basil Springer, a weekly columnist for the Barbados Advocate, who in the interest of transparency is my "old man" (but always has new ideas), said: "We do have 'bridges' and tunnels' that link the countries in the Caribbean, but the toll is too expensive. What is the average load factor by origin and destination within the Caribbean on LIAT, Caribbean Star, BWIA and Air Jamaica? If we could devise a yield management system to fill those empty seats to the mutual benefit of the traveling publics and the airlines at a much cheaper toll, this may go some way to increasing the people integration in the Caribbean. Accommodation may be solved by barter arrangements with family and friends and by using the empty room nights in hotels and guest houses in some creative manner. Lateral thinking such as this is needed to solve the problem."

He also opined that telecommunications companies, too, can be asked to join the fray by reducing the cost of telephone calls to Caribbean call-in programs to specific telephone numbers over the period of the call-in program. "Look at what (Alien) Stanford has done with 19 countries in the 20/20 tournament. Caribbean Star's income during July 2006 must have improved significantly moving all those teams to Antigua, in many cases along with their supporters. His apparent generosity is partly building his airline, and I would not be surprised if this generosity gives a large return on investment as he markets the new form of the game in the U.S."

The lateral thinking has begun, and hopefully before long, CTO's efforts will translate into a lot of lateral action to bring and people closer together.

By: Springer, Bevan, New York Amsterdam News

Friday, September 01, 2006

Expanding Boundaries for Family Getaways

Family travel is on the rise this summer, according to an American Express travel agent poll, as vacations are expanding beyond the traditional getaways to include newer, broader, and more active and meaningful travel plans. Agents point out that top motivators for family travel include the desire to introduce children to different cultures, customs, and lifestyles, as well as to experience new things together and create lasting memories.

Respondents maintain that families increasingly are drawn to active and experience-driven travel plans. Poll results show that agents are booking more out door, adventure family vacations (62%) and international trips (57%). Some 49% of travel agents polled say cruising is a growing trend in family travel as well. Moreover, family reunions are on the rise, declare 41% of agents. Indeed, family members are pairing up to travel: 64% of agents are seeing more mother-daughter getaways, while 36% note an in crease in father-son tandems. Almost two-thirds of agents indicate that spa getaways make up most mother-daughter vacations; fathers and sons usually choose active vacations, such as hunting, biking, hiking, or fishing.

Within the U.S., Orlando ranks as the top destination. New York and Miami are second and third, respectively. Las Vegas and Hawaii round out the top five.

When agents were asked to name the most popular international destinations for families, London, Rome, and Paris took the top three spots. Other popular international destinations include Cancun, Mexico; Nassau in the Bahamas; and San Jose, Costa Rica.

Source: USA Today Magazine, Aug2006