Promoting tourism under Trump

Promoting tourism under Trump
© Greg Nash

Storm clouds have been brewing over the U.S. travel and tourism industry — and Jonathan Grella is holding out an umbrella he hopes will protect it.

As executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association, Grella leads an aggressive push to promote tourism at a time when President Trump’s efforts to beef up national security are threatening to put a damper on the market.

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“That is truly the battle of our time: the balance between security and travel,” Grella told The Hill in an interview this month.

Grella, who started working on Capitol Hill after completing graduate school in Washington, D.C., has nearly two decades of experience crafting a wide range of messages. He previously served as press secretary for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and also directed public relations for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Grella and his wife eventually moved back to D.C. in 2013 to be closer to family and friends. Grella, a Long Island native with a penchant for stylish pocket squares and ties, took a gig with the Travel Association.

At the time, the travel and tourism industries were still in somewhat of a slump because of the recession. But travel started surging again last year thanks to an improving economy and low fuel prices.

Grella said his organization is dealing with more issues now than it ever has before.

Part of the reason is that the Trump administration has announced a slew of new travel restrictions this year that have direct and indirect impact on the $250 billion sector.

There has been mounting concern that the crackdown could have a broad chilling effect on the demand for international and business travel to the U.S., which would deal a major blow to the economy.

“I keep teasing my team that there will be this magical day in the future where things will settle down,” Grella said.

One of Trump’s first executive orders after taking office was to temporarily ban people from certain majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S., sparking widespread chaos and confusion at airports around the country. The policy was bogged down by legal challenges, but a revised version was eventually allowed to partially take effect this summer.

The White House then issued a third and more permanent version of the policy after significantly strengthening its vetting procedures for individuals seeking entry into the U.S.

The administration also began banning laptops in the cabins of certain U.S.-bound flights as part of an effort to keep up with evolving terrorism threats.

The administration ended up replacing the ban with tougher screening and security requirements, but any country that does not comply will be subject to a laptop ban. And all U.S. airports are now implementing stricter screening methods for electronics larger than a cell phone.

The moves have spurred high anxiety among travel advocates. The industry is deeply worried that the cumulative effect of the policies will eat into its share of international tourism, which it has worked hard to grow in the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

So Grella and his organization have gone into overdrive to beat back the unintended consequences of Trump’s policies and ensure that growth is not jeopardized.

The strategy is not to change the policies, Grella said, but to shape how they are messaged.

He has been pressing policymakers and the administration to communicate clearly who remains welcome to visit the country and to emphasize that the U.S. still values legitimate international business and leisure travelers. He wanted the administration to include a “welcome message” in its executive order.

“You can say America is closed to terror and open for business, but you don’t have to sacrifice much in way of policy,” Grella said.

Grella has also emphasized to the White House that how they roll out the policies are just as important as their substance.

“Things get lost in translation. Perceptions do matter,” he said. “So we have been very focused in getting the administration to appreciate that words move markets.”

Another part of Grella’s approach has been to appeal to Trump’s own messaging, as the president has repeatedly lamented that America is falling behind other countries.

Grella has warned that the international travel market is growing, but the U.S. could lose market share if the administration is not careful.

“We should compete in this realm, just like this administration does in so many other realms,” Grella said.

But he acknowledges there is a delicate balancing act when it comes to security. While there is concern that the tougher restrictions could discourage travel to the U.S., the perception that travel is unsafe could also have a deleterious effect.

Travelers may be more willing to comply with tougher screening procedures if policymakers communicate why the measures are necessary in the first place. Since 9/11, travelers have adapted to policies that may be perceived as inconvenient, such as being required to take off their shoes and to pack limited liquids in their carry-on bags.

“Security comes first,” Grella said. “Without security, there can be no travel.”

While the Travel Association has long dealt with security concerns, Grella said this battle is unique because it’s more a position fight than a policy one, which is where the organization typically thrives.

On Capitol Hill, Grella has also been pushing to raise a federal cap on the fees that airports can charge passengers to pay for facility upgrades, which a Senate panel endorsed for the first time this year, and to protect Persian Gulf airline routes to the U.S., which have been scrutinized for receiving billions of dollars in foreign subsidies.

Those are two issues that Grella believes could earn support from the White House, which is why he said it was so critical to get off on right foot with the administration this year.

And sure enough, after each new travel restriction came down, the association was careful not to condemn the White House while still expressing alarm over the policy and offering to be a constructive partner.

“It was our desire to not take the many daily invitations to hammer the administration, even though they were issuing a ban that bore the same name as our industry,” Grella said. “That was not the easiest job, because there were some folks who were really hampered by it. But a constructive relationship ultimately behooves us.”