U.S. to the World: Come See Our Sights

The U.S. Department of Commerce has issued an RFP for a research project to determine which international markets it should target for a $50 million tourism effort approved earlier this year by President Bush. The search is a prelude to a review to find a shop that will create the campaign itself.

The initiative is being coordinated in concert with the State Department’s public-diplomacy efforts and the Office of Homeland Security. The decision to promote itself abroad as a tourist destination is a first for the U.S. and a direct response to losing market share to other countries.

The U.S. hosted 52 million visitors in 2000, but that number dropped to 42 million in 2002, according to DOC figures. What’s more, groups such as the Travel Industry Association of America say that unlike the U.S., countries such as Canada and the U.K. routinely spend $100 million a year on tourism campaigns.

“We need to do a better job of marketing ourselves,” said Doug Baker, deputy assistant secretary of commerce, who handles tourism.

Baker said the goal is to issue an RFP for an agency in October and have creative ready by the end of the year. While no definite plan is set, Baker said the hope is to roll out a multifaceted campaign that would include TV, radio, print and interactive.

About $30,000-50,000 of the $50 million appropriation will be spent on the initial research project, which is also intended to identify which parts of the U.S. tourism industry—such as airports and trade associations—would be willing to supplement the $50 million in public tax dollars allocated for the campaign. When Congress set aside the money, it only intended the campaign to last a year.

The research results will be presented to an advisory board set up by the DOC last month. Members of the 15-member board include James Rasulo, president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, who serves as chairman; and Noel Irwin Hentschel, CEO of American Tours International, who is vice chairman. Other members include Jonathan Linen, vice chairman of American Express; Glenn Tilton, CEO of United Airlines; and J.W. Marriott Jr., CEO of Marriott International.

“We’ve come a long way since Sept. 11, but much still needs to be done,” Commerce Secretary Don Evans said at the time the board members were announced. “This industry is a key economic generator, so it is important that we continue to be aggressive in restoring international travel to the United States.”

The tourism campaign is also being viewed by government officials as another weapon in the war to improve America’s image. Efforts by the State Department have included the widely criticized $15 million “Shared Values” campaign, which was designed to change negative opinion of the U.S. among Arabs and Muslims. While no more ads are being produced in that campaign, about $4 million is being spent on public relations in Arab-speaking countries. That work is being done by PR firm Weber Shandwick.

The State Department also issued an RFP on Aug. 13 to find an agency to promote Arab-language Web sites. That initiative follows a recent effort by the Middle East division of Saatchi & Saatchi to target an Arabic magazine to 18-35-year-olds in Arab-speaking countries. “Any type of image campaign can also play a role in public-diplomacy efforts,” Baker said.

While some trade groups applauded the spirit behind the DOC’s campaign, they said the government should be doing more. Some even questioned the need to spend any money on more research.

“The government should spend a minimum of $100 million every year,” said Betsy O’Rourke, svp of marketing at the Travel Industry Association of America. “Every dollar counts, and the hope is the majority of the funds will be spent specificially in media and not on fees and services.”

In a recent report, O’Rourke determined that if the tourism industry were to regain 1 percent of market share, the government would earn $2 billion in federal, state and local taxes. “There is a desperate need for this type of campaign,” she said. “We have lost so much market share, and that is costing us millions of dollars and jobs.” —