Practicing the art of the possible in unsettled times
Pictured above: Huntington Beach. Photo: Visit-California
In unsettled times, whether it’s in business or on a personal level, sometimes the best way to calm things down is to reach out to your colleagues and friends for some reassurance.
And that’s exactly what a late spring visit to Toronto by a staggeringly large and impressively high-powered group of senior California tourism executives was all about.
The message the group had for its key partners in Canada was that despite all of the rhetoric coming out of Washington – not to mention the uncertainty it has created both in the travel and tourism industry and in political circles around the world – California is open for business and is ready to welcome anyone and everyone.
“We thought it was a good time to come into this market and just reaffirm our welcoming message under the new campaign we’re doing – California, All Dreams Welcome,” Caroline Beteta, president & CEO of Visit California explained during a conversation with Canadian Travel Press during the group’s Toronto visit. “California has been invested in Canada for years and years and years. It’s an important market for us.”
So, asking the obvious question, what about the Trump factor? Well, according to Beteta, the extent of the impact won’t be known until later in the year, when the state’s tourism industry sits down and takes a look at the actual travel numbers.
“Obviously,” Beteta said, “it’s a dynamic and fluid situation that we have to take into consideration – like currency issues and the overall market.”
And she continued that right now: “We’re focused on just reinforcing our message and that’s [that] Californians love Canadians and we want to express our sincerity in terms of rolling out that red carpet and continuing to provide that welcome for all our Canadian friends and families and visitors.”
Certainly during the group’s Toronto visit, the response from the trade here was positive, with Beteta telling CTP: “We’ve had incredible feedback. And, you know, it’s authentic feedback – we have common cultures, experiences, friends, families, foundation.”
She also pointed out that California is “so far away from our policy makers [in Washington, DC] out on the West Coast that I think people recognize that we kind of just do life differently and approach life differently and that resonates with our friends here in Canada because it’s a similar outlook on life, let’s say.”
Along with Beteta, CTP had a chance to sit down with five of the state’s top tourism executives and get their assessment of the situation. Here’s what they had to say:
Los Angeles – Inclusivity defines us
One of the first things that Patti MacJennett, senior vice president, business affairs for the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Bureau pointed out was the success of a new welcome initiative the city had just launched, with the video garnering 18.3 million views in a very short time.
The message, MacJennett told CTP was that Los Angeles’ diversity and its inclusivity “is really what defines us.”
She continued: “We’ve got about 224 languages spoken just in L.A. and that same diversity really is true of California’s international gateways. The importance of the international traveller to Los Angeles is just enormous, and it’s more than just about how many visitors or what they spend, it’s really about the relationships going long term. Canada for California is the second-largest market and for LA it’s the third-largest market, and so we don’t want to assume that Canadians will just naturally come. We want to make sure that they feel assured and welcomed in any place in California.”
As for the impact of the Trump administration, MacJennett said that city tourism officials have been closely watching both advanced travel searches and sentiment polling, and the good news is that Los Angeles “is tracking differently than the rest of the United States.”
Further positive news came during the group’s visit to Canada, where MacJennett said: “We’ve heard some very positive news in terms of bookings from Canada to the United States” with first-quarter leisure travel numbers up by 3.8% and “interest in travelling to the United States is also positive.”
In fact, MacJennett, along with others in the delegation, had other concerns about the Canadian market, observing: “Last year, our visitor count from Canada was pretty flat. In fact, it was down one or two per cent, and I think that was due to the currency exchange. So, this year, we’re expecting it to be anywhere from flat to about 1% up. We’re being optimistic that we won’t be seeing declines due to the political climate.”
San Francisco – The spirit of 1967
The political climate was certainly top of mind with Hubertus Funke, senior vice-president, tourism for the San Francisco Travel Association, who told CTP: “We know it is a challenge in terms of the rhetoric that’s being disseminated and some of the policies that are being deployed.”
On the other hand, Funke noted San Francisco has not seen “a huge drop off in visitation as of now,” but added: “Anecdotally, of course, we do know that visitors are either discouraged or not inclined to visit based on the overall sentiment and the rhetoric.”
Funke said that before making the visit to Canada, the California delegation had been in Mexico, talking to their travel trade partners there and making sure that the destination’s welcome message is being heard loud and clear.
“We know that the Mexican market is very sensitive to this and some other markets as well. Obviously, the travel ban that has been deployed targets some markets that are not huge in terms of visitation for San Francisco, however, we do want to ensure that we are still positioned as a welcoming destination,” Funke said.
As for the Canadian market, the San Francisco Travel Association’s senior vice-president, tourism, said: “We love the Canadian visitors. It’s a huge market for us. This year we expect about 272,000 [Canadian] visitors.”
But he admitted that the forecast for 2017 is that Canadian visits will be down slightly due to the currency exchange rate.
“That’s a major driver in how people make decisions. We also know that Canada is celebrating a big birthday this year, so we also assume that Canadians may stay home for whatever is going on and being promoted within their own beautiful country.”
And, while San Francisco can’t influence the exchange rate, Funke said that what the destination is doing is showing “people what is really of value,” adding that “we also work with regional partners around San Francisco to create more packages for the Northern California region to entice Canadians who may have been to San Francisco to come back and visit and maybe explore some of the outlying areas as well.”
For San Francisco, 2017 is a big year as the city celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and the political and social changes that were going on in 1967.
In fact, Funke is quick to note that parallels between what was going on 50 years ago and what is going on today, telling CTP: “For better or for worse, there are a lot of parallels in what drove that revolution in 1967. It’s so topical today really, and we feel that a lot of that spirit that kind of came into existence in ’67 is still alive in San Francisco. That’s something that we still celebrate – whether it’s the spirit in the neighbourhoods but also in the overall spirit and how the people in San Francisco feel about what’s going on locally and in the world and how we position ourselves against that.”
Oakland – A reaffirming opportunity
“We have always looked at Canada as a neighbour and also a tourism neighbour. Canadian tourism is our second-largest international travel group to California,” observed Mark Everton, president & CEO, Visit Oakland.
“We want to continue to nurture that and given some of the rhetoric and some of the concerns that have popped up of late – added to the challenges of the exchange rate between the Canadian and US dollars – we felt that it was time for us to comeback and reaffirm our position and take the opportunity to welcome Canadians to California,” he continued.
Everton is buoyed by the positive response the group has received both from the Mexican and the Canadian travel trade, telling CTP: “The response we’re getting is generally very positive. People look at California differently than they look at the rest of America,” noting that: “California clearly did not vote the way that the majority or a large percentage of the general populace did, and we’ve grown up and our children are growing up in a very diverse society and they understand that diversity.”
And he pointed out that there are some 110 different languages being spoken in the Oakland Public School system and the city has a large LGTBQ community, as but two examples of the city’s diversity.
San Diego – The art of the possible
When CTP asked Kerri Verbeke Kapich, chief operating officer, San Diego Tourism Authority, what brought her to Toronto, she explained: “We’re here just reaching out to our customers. Talking about California as a place that’s open for business and wanting to welcome as many people as possible into our fair state. And hopefully answer questions that people might have in terms of what’s going on; what’s new; and reasons to come and see us.”
That’s not surprising, as Kapich is quick to point out that: “Canada is our No. 1 international market – followed by Mexico and then the United Kingdom.”
Asked about the Trump administration’s impact on San Diego’s tourism business, Kapich said simply:
“We don’t know yet,” before continuing: “You know all of this is fairly new and still unfolding. San Diego is a very popular travel destination both for US travellers and for international travellers. So far, business this year is very good, so we’re not seeing any softness at this time.”
Kapich also believes that the fact that the state’s tourism industry has moved quickly to get a positive message into the market has really helped the situation.
“California is a positive place,” she told CTP. “It’s kind of the Art of the Possible. I think the focus on All Dreams Welcome or Dream Big is an embodiment of that. California has its own spirit and vibe in many ways.”
She continued: “We’re a border community. We’ve always been accepting. We’ve always been diverse. We’ve always been open-minded. And that really flows through the whole state.”
Santa Monica – The California experience
Misti Kerns made abundantly clear that the reason she came to Toronto in late May was “to make sure that it’s understood that the USA, California and certainly Santa Monica are open for business and welcome visitors from Canada.”
Kerns, who’s the president & CEO, Santa Monica Travel & Tourism, told CTP that:
“I think it’s a very important message. Many of us are very disappointed with the rhetoric that’s coming out of the White House, and we want to make sure that people know that they are welcome and we encourage them to come and visit us.”
Kerns observed: “The United States has always been known for offering people opportunity – California, especially. I mean dreamers come to California and try to do things that you couldn’t really do anywhere else. California is an accepting type of destination.”
In fact, she pointed out that 50% of the visitors that Santa Monica welcomes are international travellers, and it is clearly something the city celebrates. “You’re out in the streets and you’ll hear several languages spoken and you’ll meet people from different countries – that’s an important part of our lives.”
As for the Canadian market, things are pretty good as Kerns sees it.
“You’re GDP is up. I think that it all looks hopeful. And we’re certainly here to make sure that this market is aware of us.”
So what’s the takeaway?
Well, Caroline Beteta probably sums it up best for her colleagues, telling Canadian Travel Press: “California has always been a great destination for Canadians, and it will continue to be that and we will continue to roll out the welcome mat and red carpet for them and invest in the destination, so there’s always something new and fun and fresh to do.”
As for the call to action, Beteta told Canadian Travel Press with a big smile:
“So come see us, eh.”