President Barack Obama set a lofty goal of 100 million visitors to the United States by 2021, and it’s up to the team at Brand USA to make it happen. Through initiatives aimed at both consumers and businesses such as websites, film and food, they’re hoping to attract visitors from all around the world, especially Asia

By Liana Cafolla

Selling the idea of United States as a travel destination to the world must rank as one of the most daunting marketing missions. Take the vastness of America, its huge diversity, the broadness of its appeal and package it all into something that will resonate around the world.

That is the task that President Barack Obama set for the US travel industry, along with a target of enticing 100 million travelers to the States by 2021. Can it be done? From the results so far, it seems the answer is yes.

More than two million extra visitors came to the United States during the past two years, spending US$6.5 billion dollars and supporting an average of 50,000 incremental jobs in each of the two years.

Brand USA

The figures came from Brand USA, a public-private enterprise that started operations in May 2011. It was set up through the 2010 Tourism Promotion Act and tasked with coordinating international marketing efforts aimed at increasing tourist numbers to the US and enhancing America’s appeal as a top travel destination.

In partnership with a network of nearly 500 private-sector partners worldwide, the idea is to bring in billions of tourist dollars and create tens of thousands of new American jobs in the process. The organization – which is funded by private sector contributions that are matched by fees paid by international visitors who benefit from the visa waiver program and pay a US$14 fee to enter the US – promote all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the five US territories.

BrandUSA staff portraits“Last year, we had a record 75 million visitors,” said Jay Gray, Vice President, Global Market Development at Brand USA, who was in Hong Kong in June to promote Brand USA’s programs and initiatives in the Asia Pacific region.

By comparison, France, the world’s leading travel destination, received about 83 million visitors last year.



A Long Road Ahead

The 2014 record-breaking visitor numbers included more than 9.6 million visitors from Asia, including Hong Kong, an increase of 6.1 percent compared to 2013. While it is an impressive growth, there is still a long way to go. Brand USA says that it has a lot of ground to make up to return to the visitor numbers that the US enjoyed 10 years ago.

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“Between 2000 and 2010, the US share of international arrivals dropped 36 percent, from a market share of 17 percent to 12.5 percent,” Gray revealed. Citing US Travel Association Research figures, he explained that the economic costs of that decline are estimated to be a loss of 78 million visitors, US$606 billion in spending and support for 467,000 jobs annually.

One reason for the decline is that while other global leading tourism destinations spend huge amounts of money promoting themselves abroad, the United States has not had a coordinated national tourism marketing program before it launched Brand USA. The organization aims to achieve its goal through a range of marketing activities targeting both consumers and the travel trade.

At the international consumer level, the campaign includes television, print advertising, public relations and social media outreach. At the business-to-business level, the organization will build awareness through trade shows, sales missions, tour operations and travel agent outreach, and educational campaigns, including information about US entry policies and procedures in an effort to identify and correct what it says are misconceptions about those policies.

So how will Brand USA go about bridging the 25 million visitor gap it needs to reach President Obama’s target and become the world’s favorite tourist destination? With the tagline “Discover this land, like never before,” the key message of the campaign is discovering, or rediscovering, the attractions of America through a combination of initiatives designed to encourage travel agents and consumers to see, taste, learn about and experience the US.

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Gut Instinct

In Asia Pacific, one of Brand USA’s main strategies is to create an appetite for America by zooming in on an area most Asians hold dear: food.

“60 to 65 percent of visitors to the US say food is a main part of their decision to visit,” says Gray. “[It’s] about engaging the senses – scents coming out of the kitchen: authentic, sensory, memorable.”

The team has put together a multi faceted approach to promote the delights of the American kitchen. In Hong Kong, Brand USA is partnering with i-Cable TV to broadcast a series of television shows hosted by Hong Kong celebrities, featuring leading American chefs who will showcase favorite foods and signature flavors from their hometowns.

The programs tie in with a newly launched online element on the website, which targets individual consumers. The “Flavors of the USA” food hub features culinary-inspired travel itineraries and details of food, wine and beer events nationwide, plus a book of recipes by well-known American chefs.

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A Complete Experience

A major theme of the project is a focus on the appeal of America’s wide open spaces and the great outdoors. Next year will see the release of a giant screen film, America Wild: A Natural Parks Adventure, coinciding with the centenary of the National Parks Service. The film will be screened in about 40 countries worldwide, in early 2016.

The movie builds on the United States of Great Outdoors website launched by Brand USA in 2014, which showcases the country’s outdoor destinations. Visitors to the site can learn how the film was made. 3

Besides directly engaging consumers, Brand USA is also running trade focused initiatives like the USA Discovery Program. The flexible online learning course was launched this year to train travel industry professionals around the world in learning more about the US and its special holiday experiences. The program is currently active in six countries including Brazil, Ireland and Australia, with one for China to be launched in 2016.

Participants learn at their own pace and in their own time. They become part of an online community where they can share information and ask their peers questions. Those who successfully complete the course can take interactive quizzes to earn the title of USA specialists and receive award badges that recognize them as experts.

Another trade-focused program are mega fam trips – large scale, multi destination travel trips aimed at international travel agents – where travel trade professionals will be invited to take part in trips to the US and experience America for themselves.

An Economic Boost

Brand USA says its work hugely benefits the country by boosting the economy and supporting or creating jobs. International travel is the single largest services export, accounting for 25 percent of all services exports in 2012 and ranking ahead of agricultural goods and motor vehicles, according to the organization.

“Boosting international tourism is one of the best levers we have to create new, outsource-proof US jobs and spur economic activity,” said Gray. “According to studies by the US Travel Association, the average overseas visitor to the United States spends more than US$4,000 per trip … Every 33 new overseas visitors to the United States directly or indirectly supports one new job in the US.”

“Every sector of the economy benefits from more heads in beds, more passengers on planes and trains, more visitors to destinations, more diners at restaurants and more customers at local businesses across the country.”

Liana Cafolla is an Irish-Italian journalist based in Hong Kong for the last 15 years. She writes about business, human resources and business trends for publications including the CFA Institute and the South China Morning Post. She has conducted business research for the Economist Intelligence Unit, HSBC, and JP Morgan.