We’ve heard a number of major brand leaders, perhaps most notably and frequently Chris Nassetta of Hilton, refer to this as the ‘golden age of travel.’ Driven by factors such as a growing middle class throughout the world and a younger generation which considers travel in large part to be a birthright, these CEOs content that despite shifting fundamentals and an economic cycle that is long past its peak there are still plenty of good times ahead for the U.S. lodging industry. And they attribute that largely to an expected increase in inbound travel to the U.S.
However, I was quite surprised to learn recently from Hilton—which just announced a unique Passport Project—that only 41 percent of Americans have a valid passport. In 2017, it’s a bit shocking to realize that one of the wealthiest nations in the world and less than half of the citizens are equipped to travel outside the country’s borders.
Hilton, and its flagship Hilton Hotels & Resorts brand, has recognized the untapped potential that this represents and launched its Hilton Passport Project following a study of 1,000 travelers which explored some of the motivation behind getting a passport, as well as other pertinent info.
Chief among the findings was that more than half, 53 percent, of Americans with passports are content with their lives as opposed to 34 percent of those who don’t have passports. Granted it’s a small sample size, but as someone who has the opportunity to travel a lot for business it makes sense. While it can be a grind sometimes, I can tell you it provides you with a different perspective of the world and your place in it.
Furthermore, traveling tends to become a habit rather quickly. The more of the world you see the more you want to see and the innate fear that is in all of us when we leave our home base soon dissipates.
The U.S Travel Association and other key industry figures have spent a lot of time and effort in recent years trying to alleviate visa issues for other countries, such as China, that want to travel to the U.S. And while that certainly makes economic sense, increasing the outbound tourism can be equally beneficial.
The good news is there’s been progress already as the number of U.S. passports issued has steadily risen since 2011. In 2016, there were 18 million-plus passports issued, including passport cards. That’s compared to some 15 million in 2015. As appoint of comparison, In fact, 2011 represented a 10-year low with just 12 million issued.
As part of the aforementioned program Hilton—in partnership with Zach Houghton, founder of Passion Passport—will stage a live event in New York City to guide people through the process. In addition, the company will be setting up Passport Project activations at select hotels and locations later this year. Visitors will be able to take their passport photo and receive all the information and materials they need to apply for one.
Kudos to Hilton for spearheading such an effort but there has been a widespread effort throughout the industry. For example, Arne Sorenson, President and CEO of Marriott International, is being inducted into the U.S. Travel Hall of Leaders this fall—along with STR’s Randy Smith—for his considerable work with Brand USA, an organization charged with marketing the U.S. around the world. (Incidentally, Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton, was inducted into the U.S. Hall of Leaders in 2016.)
The impact of Brand USA has been very real. In fact, following President Trump’s budget proposal in June which would have eliminated funding for the agency, more than 300-plus travel businesses and organizations signed a letter extolling its benefits.
Hotel industry fundamentals, while still relatively solid, are not what they were a few years ago. Meanwhile, many in the industry have been waiting on an influx of global travelers to improve those fundamentals, but it seems some are starting to recognize that waiting’s just not going to get it done.