How Representing NYC Has Prepared Fred Dixon to Showcase the U.S.

The president and CEO of NYC Tourism + Conventions talks about his new role leading Brand USA, the destination marketing organization for the United States.

Author: Michelle Russell       

man with short goatee and moustache, blue eyes, brown hair

NYC Tourism + Conventions president and CEO Fred Dixon will become president and CEO of Brand USA beginning July 15.

Next month, Fred Dixon will expand his horizons beyond New York City, going from focusing on attracting visitors to the city’s five boroughs to the country’s 50 states and five territories. Following a successful 18-year stint at New York City’s DMO, NYC Tourism + Conventions, first as vice president, tourism, and as president and CEO since 2014, Dixon will become president and CEO of Brand USA, the destination marketing organization for the United States.

Under his leadership, international visitation has more than doubled to 13 million-plus travelers to New York, in part due to a strategy to create a global network of outposts in feeder markets, including Australia, China, Mexico, Brazil, and the U.K. That track record will come in handy as Dixon is tasked with delivering on Brand USA’s mission of increasing international visitation to the U.S. as a way to fuel the U.S. economy and enhance the country’s image worldwide.

Dixon, who is also the current chair of Destinations International, recently met with Convene over Zoom, looking back on his time leading NYC’s marketing organization and sharing what he is most looking forward to in his new role. Here are his reflections and aspirations:

Career Highlights

You think about the world and how much it’s changed [in the 18 years I’ve been here], and the crises we’ve been through. One thing that’s remained as true today as it was then is the power and the beauty of travel. The strength and appeal of this great destination endures.

When I think back on it, the thing I’m most proud of is the team — the amazing people who make up this organization who continue to innovate and be motivated and excited by the work in this city, always finding fresh ways to talk about the destination and promote it. I’m most proud of the diversity — and just the general spirit — of the team and how they pull together and work so hard.

Diversity Initiatives

New York City is one of the most diverse places in the world, certainly in the United States, and it’s our strength in so many ways. The diversity of our communities, whether that’s shopping versus Broadway, or whether you want to do a complete food immersion in Southeast Asia, in Queens, or go deep into any one of our three Chinatowns, or if you want African American or Hispanic food. It runs the gamut.

I’m really proud of the quality of the work that the team continues to do in advancing diversity and inclusion in the destination — the Latino experience in New York, the Black experience, the Asian experience, LGBT, Accessible New York City. I think we remain the only destination in North America that has a halal guide.

Then I think about our expansion in the international arena over the years. When I joined the organization, we had five international outposts. Today, we have 17 offices servicing more than 30 countries.

We’ve doubled international travel since I’ve been here — when you go from six and a half million to over 13 million, it has an enormous impact. If you look at just last year’s numbers alone, there was $48 billion in direct spending in the five boroughs from visitors. Half of that was contributed by international travelers — they’re 20 percent of the volume, but 50 percent of the spending; $24 billion in direct spend, and that’s almost $50 billion in economic impact, just from international.

Navigating Crises With Resilience

I think also about all the crises we’ve come through, like Superstorm Sandy. We were all tested during that moment — half the city was without power, we lost our website, and our servers in Lower Manhattan were flooded. But I think that it prepared us for the future. Many of us had been through 9/11, then the various health crises we had — swine flu and the avian flu. We even had Ebola in the five boroughs.

Then, of course, the pandemic. The way this organization and this community pulled together — we published the blueprint for recovery within a few months of the pandemic lockdown. We formed the coalition for recovery where private industry and government came together across the city, across hospitality and tourism, to advocate. We secured $30 million in federal funding for the recovery effort. I think that was more than any other single destination received from the federal recovery monies that came out of Congress.

Excited to Expand his Focus

I’m excited to collaborate across the country. I feel fortunate to have started in a small destination, in Gatlinburg, my hometown, with the tourism board, and then worked at attractions like the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, where I worked for Butch Spyridon for years — I learned so much from Butch. Then after 9/11, it was really a goal for me to come to New York and be part of this organization.

To have realized that, and then be able to leverage a broad portfolio of experience for the benefit of the country — and working with longtime friends and collaborators and colleagues across the nation — is really exciting, to take what we’ve learned in New York, the relationships that we have around the world, and apply that to growing international travel into the U.S.

Brand USA has a great track record. It’s still a young organization, formed by Congress in 2011. Chris [Thompson, who is stepping down as president and CEO of Brand USA] has been a tremendous force in getting the organization established as an entity and a brand all around the world. I think this is one of those inflection moments where you take what is already a tremendously strong platform and team, and then, how do you work to take it to the next level? You look at travel today around the world, people are prioritizing travel over other things. The U.S. is, I think, arguably the most aspirational destination in the world. We have the greatest diversity of product of any place you’re going to find. [I’m honored] to work on that and take it to the next level.

Visa Wait Time Challenge

For the future of group travel and the future of international travel, long visa wait times is at the top of the list [of challenges]. I know US Travel’s keenly focused on working with the government to bring these wait times down. In many ways, it is still a backlog from the pandemic.

I think there have been struggles in certain regions of the world to get ramped back up appropriately. You can understand how it gets to that point — it’s a demand-side problem, which is really nice, but how do we solve for it and keep the U.S. attractive? Because waiting two years for an appointment is not acceptable.

I know the State Department is keenly focused on it as well. Those wait time numbers are starting to come down around the globe. We were at the U.S.-China summit just two weeks ago in Xi’an. While we were there, they announced they were opening the Wuhan consulate, which is terrific because that now will take some pressure off the system.

RELATED: Capitol Hill Addresses Visa Wait Time Issue

There are five consulates processing visas in China today. They expect that to come down even quicker. They’ve really been focused on India and certainly in Brazil. Those are, I think, some of the flashpoints.

I also look at the opportunities that are out there. Last year, I think the State Department processed a record number of visas to the United States — more than 10 million. This government year, Oct. 1 to date, it seems like they’re also on pace to set another record for visa issuance.

One of the opportunities I think that Brand USA has is giving more focus to, more intention around attracting meetings and conventions, incentive groups, congresses from around the globe. Putting the United States at the forefront of innovation and thought leadership, a place where if you’re holding an international congress, you need to hold it in the United States. Building that platform is going to be contingent upon ease of access. Fixing this visa situation is going to be paramount.

The United States’ Travel Value Proposition

It’s the breadth of experiences that are available. It is diversity of our communities, but it’s also the diversity of the experiences. Anything you want, you can find the best of here in the United States and its territories. Whether it’s winter sports, summer sports, sun and fun on the beaches, urban experiences in major cities.

Also uniquely American experiences — American theater, the American musical, jazz is uniquely American, blues as well. I think from our music and our food to our cultural experiences and the outdoor experiences you can have across the U.S. — they’re really unmatched.

How the Upcoming Election Will Affect International Travel

I think sometimes we can get in our own heads about these things, but the reality is that in this administration, in the last administration — the pandemic aside — international travel has continued to grow. I think travelers can separate politics from experience. I think about politics in foreign countries — I give it some thought, obviously. We wring our hands over some issues, but it doesn’t stop me really from traveling to most places. I expect that that will hold true again. It’s certainly going to be our job to keep the United States as welcoming and aspirational as possible.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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