Roger Dow: Obama Sees the Importance of Travel

I am finally in my hotel at the Omni Hotel, high above CNN’s world headquarters in Atlanta. I walked a few blocks to a party sponsored by Google and quickly fell into a fascinating conversation with an industry big wig. Roger Dow, President of the U.S. Travel Association, chief lobbyist for our industry, was holding a drink next to Rob Torres, Google’s head of travel advertising.

Dow, a big man with silver hair and a relaxed demeanor, said he was just back from an interview with Donny Deutsch on CNBC, who was playing devil’s advocate acting as if business travel was somehow unreasonable in our age of AIG bonus outrage. People in our business are still angry over the president’s remark about how executives shouldn’t be jetting off to Vegas or to the Superbowl. To this, the mayor of Vegas is said to have remarked “hey we gotta eat too!”

Of course, Dow spends a lot of his time defending travel, and talking up the value of both inbound tourism to the US and of the culture of travel to distant business meetings and conventions. I told him about how important I felt when Tim Armstrong, Google’s ad chief in 2007, told an assembly at PhoCusWright that “here in this room was 2 percent of the world’s GDP.” I think he liked that line.

Dow said that he had recently visited the White House and it turned out much better than he expected. He had scheduled a meeting with Lawrence Summers, a top Obama adviser, and eventually he was told that Obama himself wanted to meet. So he ended up with a 30-minute sit down with the President and spoke about the need for the US to encourage visitors and prom0te our lagging inbound tourism industry.

“He has huge hands,” said Dow. “I didn’t vote for him but I’ve gotta say, he was a great listener and made excellent eye contact. Very tall, and very in touch with the topic” Dow contrasted Obama’s interest in promoting tourism with 2008’s presidential loser, John McCain, who he’s also met. “McCain isn’t a good listener,” Dow said, “It was much different meeting with him than with Obama. Hillary too, knows a lot about this issue and is really on target with what she wants to do.”

Dow’s wife joked that he sounded like Neville Chamberlain, who after meeting with Hitler said that he was a good guy. “But really, even though I was on the other side, I admire his grasp of the issue, and how interested he was in what we are proposing.” The idea is to charge a fee to foreigners exiting the US, to fund promotions and marketing to bring in more visitors to the US.

I think it just might fly, now that we’ve got a good listener in the White House, who understands our concerns in the travel business.