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CHANGES AND CHALLENGES: Talking travel with Roger Dow

Roger Dow, outgoing president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, will be honored as the 2022 inductee into the U.S. Travel’s Hall of Leaders this November. Dow has led U.S. Travel as chief executive since 2005, after 34 years at Marriott International where, at the age of 18, he started as a swimming pool lifeguard.  Dow moved up through the ranks till he led the company’s global sales and marketing functions, notably developing the first hotel loyalty program, which would become Marriott Bonvoy and the related Marriott credit card. And he’s not done yet.

At IPW recently Dow was fêted and his many accomplishments celebrated throughout the conference.
The busy Dow graciously agreed to talk with Travel Industry Today and as always, he was friendly and candid, while also being both tactful and diplomatic.

We wondered what, in all his 17 years at U.S. Travel would he consider was the biggest challenge, aside from the pandemic.

“I think the biggest challenge was to get our government to realize what a powerhouse travel is in the economy. They talk about manufacturing and they talk about (manufacturing) plants and all that. I once said to the mayor of Chicago, ‘You did a big story in the front page of Chicago Tribune about Boeing moving their headquarters. But what Boeing really did, is took six floors on an office building in Chicago. The same year, we (the travel and tourism industry) created 5,000 jobs in Chicago – and you’re talking about 180 people’”.

One of the biggest challenges, Dow said, was to get people to understand the impact of travel and the problem is, that they think of travel as airline tickets, hotel rooms and attraction tickets – they don’t realize that everything that happens – happens when someone first takes a trip.

There are so many sectors involved we asked, “How do you manage to keep them focused on a mutual goal?”

He agreed immediately that keeping that focus was very challenging.

“I think of it like almost like a Venn diagram.” (An illustration that uses circles to show the relationships among things or finite groups of things. Circles that overlap have a commonality while circles that do not overlap do not share those traits. Venn diagrams help to visually represent the similarities and differences between two concepts.)

There are things that the airlines want, he explained, and there are things that the hotels want, and they may not necessarily be the same. Attractions might want somethings even more different, “but there’s that spot in the middle where they all want.” He says – obviously people travelling, people buying what they are offering. And that is gained by an increase in international visitation. It also means getting more workers working together. It’s trying to figure out who really needs what, and “what’s our lane?”

He says he repeatedly tells the various sectors to deal with their own associations such as the American Hotel and Lodging Association, or the National Restaurant Association, to let their own associations worry about factors pertaining to their own sectors.

“We have to say, on that issue, deal with them, not us.”

Though he does admit that occasionally he runs into a situation where they are, “knocking heads because what one part of the industry wants, another one isn’t so sure that’s a good idea for them.”

Regardless, he says, “I want to focus on things that can get more people travelling and come to the United States and I try and stay very pure to that area.”

“How did you get politicians to agree?”

“You build relationships with them,” was the immediate answer. “When I first took this job, they did a profile on me. I think (it was in) a publication called The Hill. It’s political, and they said, ‘What is it like being a lobbyist?’ And I said, “Well, first of all, I’m not a lobbyist.”

He is however, a salesman and he said, “everything in life is sales.”

So, basically he sat down with politicians and got an understanding what was important to them. And was then to be able to encourage them to think, for example, how getting more travel to their State, increasing the number of people visiting, and focusing on what was important to them.

He also stressed the necessity to be apolitical.

“I joke, but it’s not a joke, Nancy Pelosi is a very good friend of mine. And she believes, I think, that maybe I’m a Democrat. Kevin McCarthy, head of Republicans, he’s a good friend of mine. He thinks I’m probably a Republican. So, I try to be non-political and stick to what is the issue.”

We noted that the previous day at the conference, he had deftly fielded a question on gun control, what is his view on social issues?

People wanting his views on social issues, is an ongoing problem.

“I don’t like getting pulled into … social issues, when someone says, okay, what’s your stand on abortion? What’s your stand on guns? That’s not our lane. Now, I know some of these things can disrupt travel – but it’s not our lane. So, I try our darnedest to stay out of those issues and let someone else deal with them.”

On these social issues, he says it’s not just one or two sides, there are several. The challenge for him is not to voice opinions on social issues – that’s for other groups. As for Dow, it’s “just stick to the knitting.”

Do you find it a problem that other parts of the world are beginning to think that the US speaks with a different voice depending on the administration? Is that turning out to be a problem?

“I think it’s more of a problem in the media than it actually is.” He says, though he admits it is certainly what people talk about on television, “but the person who’s thinking of coming to Disney World still wants to come to Disney World. I’ve heard a few people say ‘I’ll never come to your country again’ because of this administration or that administration, but I think if we stick to the value, the experience and what we have to offer, I don’t think it really matters. “

How do we as an industry motivate people? Young people particularly, to come into this industry?

“I think number one, we’re going to have a harder time because what’s happened with the pandemic. A lot of young people have seen their parents lose their jobs. We had 17 million people in the travel industry in January of 2020, in May of 2020, we had eight and a half million unemployed. It was 51%. I looked up the last year… the worst year of the great depression was 1933. The number of Americans out of work was 26%. For this industry, this was two times (that of) the great depression.”

So, now you have young people concerned about the stability of their careers, he says, but he sees a silver lining. U.S. Travel brought the head of the Boys and Girls club in California together to talk about getting people to think about travel. The response was good. He laughs that perhaps he should have been running boys and girls clubs for 20 years.

“We had a reputation being ticket takers and hamburger flippers and you know…” he says, “but our data is really, really good.” He tells us a study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed that people who started in the (travel and tourism) industry and spent at least two years in the industry, or have a career in the industry, make more than any other industries over a career, except for financial services which was about a half percent more. Women, 14% more. African Americans, 16% more. Hispanics, 20% more.

“I think the industry moves a little slow for people. But once you get there, it’s a fabulous place to work. So, I think, but we’ve got to start younger. We’ve got to talk about this industry. We’ve got to work with teachers. I’m trying to get a grant from the US government to build a toolkit for teachers to talk about (the industry). Do you want to be a lawyer, a banker, a fireman, a nurse, or a travel professional? That last part isn’t happening anywhere.”

He notes that university and community colleges offer huge opportunities – and not just in travel courses. Business schools and law schools should be talking about the opportunities there are in travel and tourism for students interested in law, finance, business and hotel development.

“There’s a million jobs.” He says, suggesting a change in approach, “if you want to have some more fun in your job and not just do contracts all day – you can be a lawyer in the travel industry. I think we’ve got to change the whole dialogue.”

What do you think is the future of the industry?

“I think it’s extremely bright and I’ll tell you why. I’ve watched it after 9/11, where the headline was, ‘No one will travel overseas again, too risky’. I watched after 2008, the headline was ‘20% of hotels in major cities never to open again’, followed by the 10 biggest years ever. I feel very good. We’re going to have a hiccup. It’s going to get going, but it’s just too big and too important. When I got this job, we were doing 46 million international visitors. 2019, we did 77 million, 30 million more. So, it’s pretty bright, but I think we’ve got to look at things differently. We’ve got to look at work differently. And I think we really have to take a different look at how we approach work and flexibility. Demographics are changing. We Boomers maybe haven’t changed the past – Millennials are different.”

He cites a fairly recent example, “I had two jobs open up (in different departments), and I had two young people that were really, really good. And I went to each of them and said, “Right now, you’re not qualified for this job, okay? But you’re so smart, I will not fill this job for six months. I’ll give you six months to prove yourself and the job is yours, if you improve.”

Both of them came back to him with the same response, “I’m not sure I’m going to accept your offer until you can give me something in writing.” Dow admits he was astounded, saying if somebody had made him the same offer at the same age, he would have “done somersaults” his response would have been, “put me in the game coach, I’ll just do what you want me to do.”

He muses over the change in attitude, “It’s different. A different mentality.”

Dow was not prepared at IPW to discuss his future plans, though he’s not done yet, and when we contacted him this weekend – he certainly made that clear as we now know he will launch an innovative company to address one of the biggest issues in the industry today. (See following story).

At the time of our interview a successor had not been named, and we asked what advice he might have for the new CEO. (It has since been announced that Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association will join U.S. Travel on September 1st)

“My advice to my successor will be – focus on relationships.” It is vitally important to build relationships and get people to trust you he said, adding, “One of the things I think we’ve earned is trust. The administration knows that we’ll poke them if they’re not doing something right, but we’ll also stand up and salute them when they do something right. They begin to get to trust us, and say, okay, these guys are pretty open, fair operators.”

We’ll leave the last word to Carnival Cruise Line President and U.S. Travel National Chair Christine Duffy, in the release announcing that Dow will be honored as the 2022 inductee into U.S. Travel’s Hall of Leaders, “It’s difficult to imagine a more effective advocate for travel today than Roger Dow. His selection to our most distinguished body reflects his countless contributions and our industry’s deep respect and gratitude. As he concludes a celebrated career as head of U.S. Travel and, previously, as a leader of Marriott, his induction honours all that Roger has achieved to advance and guide this industry and its workers.”

First published at Travel Industry Today

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