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Effective Lobbying on the Hill and at Home: An Interview with U.S. Travel's Michael Jacobson

Author: Joy Lin
Posted: February 06, 2015
Blog Topics Covered:
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Destination Marketing Organizations occupy the unique place of acting as the connective tissue between members of your communities, along with visitors from beyond. One key aspect of our work in travel and tourism is the opportunity to advocate for the continued success of this industry.

Advocacy works on many levels, whether on Capitol Hill or in your own back yard, so we're taking time with Michael Jacobson, U.S. Travel's Director of Grassroots Advocacy and Political Action Committee, to share some effective ways of lobbying for our cause at the upcoming Destination Capitol Hill and beyond.

Meeting with Members of Congress (MOC) is an important way to shape their perspective and position on the issue of travel and tourism in the United States. Can you explain how face-to-face meetings with MOCs and their staff in Washington differ from say, phone calls or letters?

When it comes to grassroots advocacy, the term Meetings Mean Business couldn’t apply more. Personalized letters and phone calls to Congressional office are certainly helpful in advancing our cause on Capitol Hill.

This was evident during the recent effort to reauthorize Brand USA, when we generated thousands of emails and phone calls to Congress. However, they pale in comparison to an in-person meeting, regardless of whether that meeting takes place in Washington or in their district office back home.

It’s important that Members of Congress and their staff get to know the tourism leaders in their community and hear, in-person, about our industry’s position on key legislative topics. There is nothing more useful than having an elected official begin to recognize your face and identify you as a trusted resource when it comes to travel policies. 

What would you say are the top 3 factors to a successful meeting with a MOC and their staff?

The three top factors are known as hook, line, and sinker.

  1. Hook: A brief introduction of yourself and why travel matters to you personally.
  2. Line: Sharing one key stat or story that shows the local impact of our issues. This would be a great opportunity to relay how many jobs are supported locally by tourism.
  3. Sinker: Being able to clearly state our unified ask, which will be provided in the talking points for all attendees. 

Travel is often considered just “fun” on Capitol Hill. But our respective organizations have a uniquely positive economic story to tell. What are some of the key statistics advocates should use when talking to elected officials?

Our industry has a relatively unique ability to “brag” about our recent economic successes and it is crucial that we share this story with our nation’s leaders. Few sectors, besides travel, can say that they have recovered each and every single job lost during the Great Recession (and then some), as our industry added more than 133,000 jobs just last year. Last September, direct travel employment topped 8 million for the first time ever, proving our industry’s ability to add jobs quickly.

Tourism continues to help boost local economies. Travel spending continued to increase nationwide last year, helping generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues that helps fund local services like schools, police and fire departments. Without travel tax revenue, each U.S. household would pay more than $1,000 in more taxes!

And while our elected officials continue to find new ways to boost the economy without raising taxes on Americans, we do just that. This is because when international travelers visit and spend money in our destinations, that’s actually considered an export.

Tourism continues to fuel the United States’ export growth, growing far quicker than many other industries. All of these national trends are obviously positive, but what is most important is highlighting your own local success story and making it personal. That is what will help you be remembered once you walk out your legislator’s door.

Destination Capitol Hill is the U.S. travel industry’s premier legislative fly-in and is coming up in March. Tell us a little about that event and share what results you hope to achieve from our meetings on the Hill and panel sessions.

We’re pleased to be partnering with DMAI for the third straight year and are thrilled that so many destination leaders will already be in Washington for Destinations Week. Bringing hundreds of travel professionals to Washington to tell their story is invaluable to advancing the industry's priorities in Congress.

We'll start the event by providing an in-depth training on how to be a successful advocate. During Wednesday's panel discussions, attendees will not only hear from policy experts on the specific issues we'll be advocating for, including transportation infrastructure and improvements to our visa system, they will also hear tips on the components of a memorable Hill meeting. We'll also have guest speakers including a famous Sunday morning network talk show host and will once again award U.S. Travel’s Distinguished Travel Champion Award to five of our industry’s top supporters from Capitol Hill and the President’s administration.

Additionally, this year we will be introducing a new award, that honors a leader from within the travel industry who has gone above in beyond to engage in advocacy back home, in their community. We are excited to be able to highlight all of the great work that is taking place among our colleagues. 

Is there any piece of legislation coming up that we as tourism organizations should pay attention to?

Building off the successful reauthorization of Brand USA last year, the travel industry will look to continue its legislative momentum in 2015. As the 114th Congress gets into full swing this spring, they will consider several pieces of legislation that have significant impacts on our industry.

The first is the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). We will advocate for Congress to include several provisions that will help reduce travel delays and improve congestion hassles by modernizing our nation’s airports. Nearly one quarter of all flights were delayed last year, leading to missed connections, increased traveler frustration and lost economic potential for cities nationwide. This problem will only get worse without Congressional action. However, unlike other travel entities, Congress prevents airports from adjusting their airport usage fees, called passenger facility charges (PFC), to account for market factors such as projected passenger growth, the cost of construction materials or airport congestion. Since 2000, Congress has set a PFC limit of $4.50 per passenger.  Because Congress has not allowed airports to adjust passenger pricing in over 14 years, many airport authorities are finding it harder to raiser their own funding for modernization projects.  Rather than relying on federal aviation taxes and grants to fund airport modernization projects, Congress should provide each airport with the flexibly to increase their passenger charges based on their individual infrastructure and local market needs.  To ensure that airports maintain reasonable fee structures, Congress should set the maximum PFC at $8.50 and allow regular inflationary adjustments, which would keep the maximum fee consistent with rising inflation since it was last raised in 2000. Additionally, we are asking Congress to allow airport revenue to be used, in partnership with the CVB, for destination marketing in support of new or existing air service, rather than just marketing the airport’s facilities, as regulations currently permit. 

We will also be working this year to educate Congress about the visa waiver program and ensure that they realize the security aspects of this crucial travel initiative. Given recent developments overseas, including the spotlight on groups like ISIS, the visa waiver program has found itself under increased examination by our lawmakers. Contrary to what several legislators are portraying in the media, the visa waiver program actually plays a role in increasing security for international travelers arriving in the United States. Participating countries are required to share much more intelligence on their travelers and use the latest version of secure passports, among several other additional security protocols. We will help train participants on how to best educate their Members of Congress about these security enhancements in order to help them understand how the visa waiver program is a valuable component to fostering secure travel to the United States. 

Read Part 2: Carrying Travel Advocacy Forward on the Home Front