ABTA Magazine speaks to Christopher Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, as the new platform launches
How do you market a destination during a global pandemic? It’s a tough question. However, it’s one that destination marketing organisations around the world are having to answer, to varying degrees of success.
For Brand USA, which held its inaugural Travel Week Europe last year, it was a particularly poignant one. The event, which was held over a week, brought together the biggest buyers and suppliers, complemented by an impressive programme of speakers. All of this was against the backdrop of the USA’s best year in terms of visitor numbers, hosting nearly 80 million tourists who combined spent a quarter of a trillion dollars.
The plan had been for the event to once again be held in London, before alternating between European capitals and the UK. However, with worldwide travel halted, it was clear that if it was going to take place, it would need to be online. The result is Brand USA’s Global Marketplace – an incredibly slick long-term platform which will host Brand USA virtual events, the first one being Brand USA Travel Week Europe 2020. During this and future events, users will be able to hold meetings, pick up contacts and materials, as well as watch content from some of the most renowned speakers in travel. Travel Week Europe day one featured a conversation between Christopher Thompson, Brand USA’s CEO, and Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International.
We caught up with Thompson to discuss the new platform and find out more about how Brand USA was operating during travel’s biggest crisis.
ABTA Magazine: How do you approach marketing the US as a destination during a global pandemic?
Christopher Thompson: Once we realised the reality of it, and once you saw the impacts that were being had, it was less about long-haul travel and more about getting on top of the pandemic. When you look at recovery, long-haul travel is probably going to be the one of the last things to come back. We realised that it was going to be inappropriate, and would be viewed as tone deaf, to be trying to promote in the ways that we would normally promote. So we really backed off into a pause. But, all the content that we’ve created – from the movies we’ve produced to the Go USA TV Channel – that’s all still there and is still relevant. We weren’t pushing it in people’s faces, we were basically saying, as you’re wanderlusting it’s there for your consumption. So most of that was happening organically. And that’s really the state that we’re still in.
How about when it comes to talking to the travel trade?
The difference is that on digital platforms, we are talking straight to the travel trade, we have been more proactive and more engaged with them. We know that travel is still aspirational. The things that make the US the US and the reason why people want to come here are still here. So when they can, our travel trade partners all over the world, and particularly in Europe, are going to be the quickest path to bringing travellers back. And, while we can’t do that face to face right now, the relationships that we’ve nurtured for decades, with travel companies and professionals will be critical to be able to return back to the next normal as quick as we can when we when it’s appropriate to do so.
What is the global marketplace, and how does it help deliver Brand USA’s message?
The global marketplace is our new digital marketing platform. It’s going to host a range of events, the first being Travel Week, so you’re the guinea pigs. When I first saw this, this virtual space, I thought it was the best I’d seen yet. The beauty of it is that people could be immersed in one part of the platform and might have missed a keynote session, they can come back and look at it after the event. So this is a community where we’re going to continue to keep our content available whenever they want to consume it. It’s going to provide an opportunity for us to stay relevant as we would normally do through events like our Travel Week.
The one-on-one appointments are obviously the most critical part of what made Travel Week successful. But you’re going to be able to go on at any point in time and reach out to both ways from suppliers to buyers and buyers to suppliers over the course of the year. So if they want to have a face to face, they can reach out and set that up and have it on the platform. I think we’ll probably find ways to even make it more engaging. But I think what we’re bringing to the table is going to be a game changer.
Have you seen as much take up in terms of buyers and suppliers?
Yeah, we have had more buyers register for this event than last year. We expected there to be a natural growth but trying it on a digital platform, who knew what kind of attention we could get from partners who are just trying to keep their businesses afloat, and stay relevant. We have more suppliers than we could ever have accommodated in a single event. We’re pushing 1,000 people that are active on the platform this year.
Are there elements of this event that you will then take forward into 2021? Or will 2021 look more like 2019?
As good as these digital platforms are, they don’t replace the energy you get in face-to-face meetings and so far these platforms have not been able to replicate that. That’s the one thing that is missing. I think what’s going to end up happening, is that we’re going to still meet face to face because we want to we need to and it’s required. It’s part of our business. It’s what’s made the hospitality business, the hospitality business for all these years. But where we might have had telephone calls, those might get replaced by calls on digital platforms. So I think digital will become more and more part of our day to day, but I don’t think it’s going to replace face to face in its entirety. It is going to reshape it, but I don’t think it’s going to replace it.
Are you expecting UK numbers to the be back by 2021? What are you forecasting?
Travel from the UK is projected to be down by 77 per cent, that’s by prognosticators other than us. So those are huge, huge numbers down. The thing that’s different about Europe, as opposed to Canada and Mexico, is connectivity. The air service has to come back. So routes that were either discontinued or a service that was discontinued has to come back. I think that those prognosticators that are looking at it for us, they’re saying visitation probably won’t be at 2019 levels until 2023 and spend levels until 2024. And that’s just getting back to where it was for 2019. That year we hosted nearly 80 million visitors who spent nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars. It was a record year for us. And so it’s going to be hard to get back to those levels.