COVID-19 began as an industry-altering event in March 2020, and the international inbound market faced unprecedented challenges in the months that followed. Borders closed, conferences were cancelled and the road to recovery appeared uncertain. Fortunately, IITA and its partners wasted no time to ensure that its members would be supported and educated during this turbulent period, and leadership proved why the organization is essential for inbound operators. Through a series of advocacy campaigns, safety initiatives and outreach programs, IITA offered assurances to members and prepared them for an even stronger future when international travel returns to full strength.
Tracing its roots back to 1991, IITA comprises a diverse group of inbound operators, DMOs and suppliers united in a common goal of strengthening international inbound travel to the United States. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization benefited its members by hosting the annual Summit to foster connections between suppliers and operators, partnering with ALON Marketing group to create the successful “Steps to Success” training program and offering exposure to new clients through its presence in print publications and industry events throughout the year. IITA also works with the National Park Service and the U.S. Travel Association to keep members update don commercial use protocols and government policies that affect international visitors.
The organization continues to support members with these successful programs, but it has also diversified its goals and strengthened solidarity among operators amid the pandemic. “The strength of this industry’s rebound is dependent on everyone pulling together, messaging together and advocating together, and that’s where an organization like IITA has shined the most,” says Fred Dixon, President and CEO of NYC & Company. “We worked with Lisa Simon and her team on a number of fronts to make sure our partners know about available government resources and assistance programs.”
IITA collaborated with the World Travel & Tourism Council to craft health and hygiene protocols for tour operators as part of the WTTC’s Safe Travels Global Protocols. As a result, IITA was authorized to award the Safe Travels Stamp, a distinction granted to organizations that exemplify health and safety practices in accordance with WHO and CDC guidelines, to its members. Tour operators can IITA Summit earn the stamp by implementing protocols that reward social distancing, stocking proper sanitation equipment and training employees on up-to-date federal COVID requirements. The program has been a rousing success, allowing IITA members to publicly promote themselves as adaptive and position themselves for future success.
Advocacy has always been a core mission of IITA, but the organization has proven its mettle by tirelessly working with federal legislators and government agencies to protect inbound operators and suppliers in the current travel climate. “The reality is that inbound travel is the top service export in the United States, and many of these travel companies will need some form of congressional support to survive two years with minimal revenue,” says IITA chairman Peter van Berkel. “We are supporting several initiatives that are variations on congressional relief packages for other industries, and this has the support of several influential senators.”
The Senate’s upcoming fall session will prove critical, and IITA is working intimately with government contacts to maximize aid for inbound travel organizations during the congressional reconciliation process. The organization is also working with its DMO partners to inform state and municipal governments about the importance of inbound travel for local businesses. “When international borders re-open and the global travel balance returns to pre-pandemic levels, we want hotels and destinations to be prepared for a diverse overseas clientele and not be overly reliant on an inflated domestic demand,” says van Berkel. “We’re encouraging our DMO members to educate their local partners on international tourists’ booking cycles so that they are as prepared as possible.” Guiding members to a more diversified product has always been IITA’s mission, but the global pandemic has strengthened its resolve to espouse the benefits of the international market.
“The IITA team has done a tremendous job communicating with us and keeping us up-to-date on policy changes and international inbound travel protocols,” says Fred Dixon. “I think they do an exceptional job advocating for their members and keeping them informed.”
IITA is also helping inbound operators prepare themselves for the inevitable surge in demand once borders re-open and COVID cases subside. “When travel restrictions are lifted and overseas visitors want to enter the United States, they’ll still need to be tested multiple times or observe increased safety measures,” says Nick Hentschel, COO of AmericanTours International and active IITA member. “Those travelers are more likely to book through a trusted travel company or travel agent instead of planning their trip independently, and we see this as a positive trend for us and other inbound operator members of IITA.”
Hentschel and other IITA members can better anticipate the needs of this international influx thanks to the organization’s leadership informing them on a variety of concerns introduced by the pandemic. Indoor mask mandates, group reservation requirements at attractions and dining capacities will all be fluid for the indefinite future, and the community formed by IITA can keep members ahead of trends instead of reactive.
“IITA members have the ability to directly meet with DMOs and suppliers they are interested in like restaurants, hotels and attractions,” says Hentschel. “I think the benefit of attending an event like Summit or working directly with your fellow members who are genuinely invested in inbound travel can’t be replicated outside of an organization like this.”
Whether it’s protecting travelers in the present with comprehensive health protocols and relief advocacy or preparing for the future by equipping operators with what they’ll need for a post-COVID reality, IITA has proven itself to be a leader in uncertain times and an essential organization for international travel’s recovery.