Brand USA celebrated a big victory just before the holidays last year. Congress passed a seven-year extension of funding for the U.S. destination marketing organization, representing all 50 states, five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.
The organization, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary in March, has proven to be effective. A study by Oxford Economics showed that Brand USA had an influence in delivering 6.8 million visitors who spent $47 billion in the last six years.
Christopher Thompson, Brand USA’s CEO and president, talked to Travel Market Report about the organization’s evolution over his eight-year tenure as well as what the future will bring.
TMR: Brand USA received re-authorization through 2027, following a year-long advocacy effort. What are the key focuses for the years ahead?
CT: I think we really zeroed in on storytelling as our way to amplify our partner stories, whether it’s destinations or brands, through digital and social campaigns that are tied to lifestyle interests. Over the course of the last few years, we had a “Hear the Music, Experience the USA” campaign that was focused on asking destinations to interpret iconic American songs. It started out with Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance,” followed by “What I Like About You” by The Romantics, and “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band. We gave it to artists in five different destinations to interpret.
In some cases, the platforms we’re on didn’t even exist 10 years ago, so I can’t imagine what we’ll ultimately end up doing. But I will tell you I think it’s healthy, every once in a while, to go in and decide what’s working and what’s not, so you’ll see that ongoing evolution. When you say, “What does the next 10 years look like?” as those platforms evolve and our ability to tell stories on what may not even exist yet comes along, we’re in a unique position to be able to be out in front of that in our space and really test it and innovate on behalf of our industry partners.
TMR: Brand USA is premiering its third IMAX film next month. Can you talk about that process?
CT: Our first film was “National Parks Adventure.” It focused on the 100-year anniversary of National Parks, those iconic things that as the films says, they’re “not just for the current generation but for every generation,” reliving that story of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir and the Redwood Forest, and him convincing the president we need to create an agency that’s a keeper of these amazing assets. It was the highest-grossing documentary that year, and it’s approaching five million views globally, so it proved to be a great storytelling platform and a great story.
Our second film, “American Musical Journey” can be found on Go USA TV, our streaming channel dedicated to content, telling the story of the USA that we launched last year. It has original content, including other long-form documentaries and our “Hear the Music” series, as well as content we’re curating.
The third film returns to a documentary style. It’s focused on the U.S. founded by trailblazers and the whole notion of exploration, and it chronicles where and how that’s occurred – from Louis and Clarke up to one of our modern day storytellers, John Herrington, who’s the first Native American astronaut. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and the global premiere is Feb. 4 at the Aerospace Museum in Washington, D.C.
TMR: Has American politics had a negative effect on international outbound travel?
CT: I think it would be irresponsible to say it doesn’t. There is some influence, but as we contemplated the onboarding of the current administration, the naysayers suggested a 20% drop in tourism. But that didn’t happen – because what travel really is all about, it’s the destination as a whole and the experiences you can have there, and we, as Americans, are some of the most welcoming people in the world. What makes the U.S. the most aspirational travel destination has nothing to do with who is in the White House or who’s elected to Congress, but has everything to do with those experiences they’ve been dreaming about. We focused in on this whole theme that travel has the amazing power to transcend politics.
TMR: How will Brand USA continue to promote global tourism?
CT: We have 19 offices around the world, and great travel trade and travel media relationships that help us facilitate our campaigns. Last year, we launched Brand USA Travel Week that takes a pan-Europe approach. We invited 150 travel companies for three days of B2B appointments, which also had an educational component.
We’re hosting it again this year in London, and we announced we’re going to continue for the next six years. Every other year will be held in London, and off years it will likely be in Germany, France and Amsterdam. There is also a smaller-scale Travel Week planned for India.
Everyone’s talking about China and India as the largest outbound travel market, but when you look at all of Europe, in the last two years, there have been 7.8 million new seats added to that market. Similarly, in China, there have been 500,000 over the same time period; and 150,000 in India. Europe’s a really well-established market – there’s still a lot of potential and a lot of growth and a lot of capacity. When you look at collective visitation, it’s 14.5 million visitors, second only to Canada and Mexico that we share a boarder with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.