How Will New Travel Policies Affect International Meetings and Events?

Author: David McMillin       

This year has been marked by a range of new rules for travelers. From attempting to ban citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, to prohibiting certain carry-on electronics on U.S.- and U.K.-bound flights, the airport experience feels dramatically different than years past. Those changes are coming with a big cost, according to a new forecast from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) that projects a loss of more than $1.3 billion in travel expenses in the United States this year. And money isn’t the only concerning piece of the forecast. GBTA estimates that more than 4,200 jobs may be lost from the fallout.

GBTA paints a troubling picture for the immediate future of leisure and business travel, but the long-term outlook for conferences and events also looks worrisome. After the Trump administration issued a revised travel ban in March, a GBTA survey of 148 European travel managers revealed that 45 percent of companies will be less willing to host meetings and events in the United States. That ban has been halted by decisions in U.S. federal court, but the attempt alone has earned the country a reputation as a less-than-welcoming destination.

Convene recently talked to GBTA Executive Director Mike McCormick about the state of global travel and how it might shape attendance at conferences.

As some international travelers reconsider when and where they should go for work, do you think the inability to bring a laptop onboard might affect whether they decide to attend a conference in the United States?

I think it gives another reason potentially to rethink being face-to-face, which we know fundamentally has a positive impact on the economy. When I think back to the efforts to recover from the financial fallout in 2009 and 2010, the single biggest driver in the recovery was outbound international business travel, and group, meeting, and incentive travel played a big role. All of it is vital to driving economic growth. We have truly globalized over the last five or six years. Now, some of these policies that create uncertainty can have a really negative impact on the entire economy.

Do you have any recommendations on how U.S.-based event organizers should communicate with international attendees?

There is no precedent for the current situation. There’s no handbook that we can go to to tell us  what to do, but I think there are some fundamental communication lessons that apply here. Reach out to your customers and your coworkers, and have a robust communications plan to stay in touch with every member of your audience. You can’t take anything for granted in this environment. We all know how hard it is to get customers back after you’ve lost them.

Are you concerned that more organizations will cross the U.S. off their consideration lists for conferences and events? If the U.S. loses its status as a premier international destination for conference learning, what might that mean for the economy?

To me, this is a greater concern, in some ways, than the impact that we’re seeing in the short term — decisions are being made right now on where to host meetings and conferences in three or four years. I’m sure it’s challenging to think about the U.S. the way you did a year ago.

The closest thing we can compare the situation to is what happened in North Carolina and Indiana [after the states dealt with perception challenges from legislation that many perceived as discriminatory toward the LGBTQ community]. As a country, we’re facing different issues, but they could have a similar impact with perception challenges trickling down to financial losses. Con-sider what we saw with the first travel ban, which resulted in $180 million worth of lost travel bookings in just one week. Those numbers can easily snowball and lead to serious consequences across the entire economy.

The road ahead looks bumpy. Is there any good news?
The small silver lining is that organizations in the events industry are better at educating elected officials. We’ve also matured in our ability to get behind these issues and know how to take them on. We’ve worked to stay away from the ideology and present the facts to bring forth an argument. Everyone wants a safe and secure environment, but we want to balance that with doing what’s right for the economy.

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