Travel is back, and the U.S. Travel Association’s annual IPW convention is riding the wave. Canadian buyers, airline executives, media and DMO public relations executives have flocked to this celebratory, good-time city deep in the heart of Texas.
The San Antonio Riverwalk, one of the most distinctive geographic and touristic features of any U.S. city, is alive with the bouncing sound of mariachi bands and clattering plates of sizzling fajitas. The city put on a special Festival del Rio show for IPW delegates on 22MAY, sending parade floats down the San Antonio River with glowing, multi-coloured lights, lariat-spinning cowgirls in red, white and blue, a New Orleans jazz band, Native American dancers and a float that was a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and Black America.
The 21May evening opening was held at the lovely La Villita Historic District, with BBQ’d Texas beef brisket, shrimp and grits, Tomahawk steaks the size of J.R. Ewing’s Cadillac and cold margaritas with tajin-spiced rims. Guests arriving at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on 22MAY were greeted with fresh breakfast tacos and a beefy member of the Texas Longhorn cattle family, thankfully kept behind some sturdy-looking metal bars.
Madeleine Brydon, Portfolio Manager North America, WestJet Vacations, said it’s been a “fabulous” IPW.
“It’s been top notch,” she told Open Jaw. “San Antonio has really gone above and beyond in terms of safety. And it’s very walkable.”
“We’re always talking about connections being important, and IPW does exactly that,” said Raina Williams, Director, Expedia Group Media Solutions, Canada. “I’ve had so many great meetings with so many forward thinkers.”
“It’s fantastic to see the demand and desire to attract Canadians to the U.S.,” said Timothy Liu, Managing Director, Sales Planning and Effectiveness, Air Canada. “As the largest carrier between Canada and the United States, we have seen demand for travel to the US increase significantly allowing us to expand our network into the US along with our Joint Venture partner United Airlines.
“IPW is a great platform for us to connect with US partners and discuss strategies to promote the United States in Canada. IPW is certainly an event that we see value in and one that we will continue to support in years to come,” Liu said.
Sana Keller, president of Pulse Communications and Travel Marketing Inc. in Toronto, who represents Santa Monica tourism and also San Antonio, said the city has done an excellent job.
“The convention centre is a new facility, and it’s relatively compact. You’re not racing around to get from one place to another.”
Keller and Williams were among the 100-plus guests at a Discover America Canada reception at the San Antonio Hyatt Regency Riverwalk on 21MAY, an event sponsored by Discover Los Angeles.
Some 5,000 delegates from more than 60 countries are in San Antonio for IPW 2023, including 1,600 buyers and media and 1,400 international delegates. Some 90,000 meetings are expected to take place over three days of the convention, not counting impromptu, night-time chats over drinks on the Riverwalk.
Speaking at a media breakfast this week, Brand USA president and CEO Chris Thompson cited the USA’s one-of-a-kind pop culture.
“We’re still the most aspirational destination in the world,” he said. “You can walk on a glacier in Alaska, go whale watching in Maine, surf the waves in Hawai’i, or watch a rocket launch in Florida.”
Thompson also noted new air routes to the U.S., including Montreal to New Orleans and Toronto to Sacramento, California.
Tackling Challenges and Barriers to Travel
Geoff Freeman, the new president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said the U.S. is gaining international visitors, but that there are several roadblocks to full recovery. Most notable is the time it takes people to get interviews for U.S. travel visas.
Current average wait times for interviews (not for the visa itself) are 527 days in Brazil, 406 days in India and 647 days in Mexico, he said, a statement that sparked audible gasps from the media.
“That’s simply unacceptable,” Freeman said. “Travellers are not going to wait 500-600 days to get a visa to travel here.”
As well, Freeman said that last month, international visitors at top U.S. airports frequently experienced average wait times of more than an hour to clear U.S. customs.
On top of that (and here’s a comment Canadians can relate to), he said U.S. travellers still face too many delayed and cancelled flights.
Commerce Department officials at IPW told Open Jaw that 9.013 million Canadian residents flew to the U.S. in 2019. That dropped dramatically during the pandemic, with just 2.574 million visitors in 2020 and only 1.471 million Canadian visits in 2021. Last year, the figure rose dramatically to 7.174 million.
For JAN and FEB of 2019, stats show that 1.586 million Canadian residents flew to the U.S. But that jumped to 2.086 million for the first two months of this year, an increase of 500,000 people, or almost 32 per cent.
Asked about gun violence in the U.S. being a deterrent to international travel, Freeman said every incident is “heartbreaking and gut-wrenching” and that violence is an issue “that many of us struggle with.”
“There’s no way to increase travel if people have concerns about public safety,” he said. “If our goal is to strengthen travel, If our goal is to strengthen the economy, then one way or the other we need to find solutions to public safety problems that give people confidence” that they can travel safely. “Those are discussions we’re having; those are discussions we will continue to have.”
Governments around the world face travel problems, but it’s not keeping IPW delegates from partying like they’d never heard of COVID-19. The breakfast sessions are bursting, the official lunches packed to the rafters, and the evening festivities filled with laughter and the sound of clinking glasses.