Is Orlando on a travel blacklist for federal agencies because coming here is too much fun?
Tourism officials think that some sort of list exists. At the very least, they say, they’re pretty sure some leisure destinations have been labeled as inappropriate for government meetings and other gatherings, regardless of price, because of potential image problems given the recession and ongoing financial crisis.
Depending on whom you ask, destinations on the list include Orlando; Las Vegas, Nev.; Miami; and Aspen, Colo.. But tourism officials admit that proving the existence of such a do-not-book list could be difficult.
“We’ve heard from individuals within government agencies that this unwritten list exists,” said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, a national trade group. “Based on what we’ve heard, I would expect it to be quite significant” in terms of the number of agencies involved.
Orlando’s top tourism marketer, Gary Sain, was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to discuss the issue with association officials.
“Right now, I’m working on trying to find the facts that could back up what we feel is happening,” said Sain, president and chief executive officer of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re sort of fighting this ghost that we know exists because we have seen or heard it.”
Sain triggered concern locally last week when he mentioned the blacklist during a meeting with Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty and the county’s Tourist Development Council.
“Basically, it looks like right now, unofficially, Orlando and Vegas are on a list of ‘not to book’ by a number of governmental agencies,” Sain told the county advisory board. “We can’t have that go through all the governmental agencies in the United States, because as the government grows, those are more and more meeting opportunities that we could lose.”
When Crotty asked if Orlando might be targeted because it’s viewed as a leisure destination, Sain said the area is probably fighting a perception within the federal government that “you cannot have a serious meeting in a destination like Orlando.”
Sain’s remarks followed a local hotel’s loss of an upcoming U.S. Department of Defense conference to a rival bidder in Chicago. According to a spokeswoman for the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, the hotel had been courting the meeting, which would have generated 5,000 room-nights. But the agency suddenly withdrew its offer without giving a reason, saying only that Orlando was no longer under consideration.
“We’re not specifically saying this is an example” of a blacklist at work, said Treva Marshall, the hotel spokeswoman. The possible existence of a do-not-book list is a destination-wide issue, not a Swan and Dolphin issue, she noted, but it’s curious that the defense agency dropped the hotel from consideration just two days after the U.S. Travel Association briefed hotel leaders on the blacklist rumors.
“We certainly find it a bit coincidental,” Marshall said.
Orlando’s convention-and-meetings business has been reeling for months from corporate cutbacks and negative publicity that followed the federal government’s bailout of large financial-service companies last fall.
Industry leaders have complained that news reports of troubled companies continuing to spend heavily on conferences and retreats — notably insurance giant American International Group, which hosted a lavish junket for employees after receiving billions of dollars in federal aid — have put a chill on all kinds of corporate travel.
Business travel to Orlando is expected to fall 11.2 percent this year, while overnight conventions and group meetings are expected to decline 16.2 percent, according to the latest estimates from the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“There may be pockets of people who feel Orlando is a leisure destination first and foremost and not a meetings destination,” Sain said. But with the region’s low airfares and the other bargains now available, he said, “Orlando should be at the top of the list as far as destinations that you should consider” for a conference, trade show or meeting.
After the reports about AIG and other bailout recipients, the U.S. Travel Association tried to limit the damage to corporate travel overall by offering guidelines that businesses and government agencies could use to help employees determine when a meeting was necessary and justified.
The trade group said it also wants members of Congress to look into how the federal government’s travel decisions are being made, and whether fear of public perception is taking precedent over competitive prices.
“At the end of the day, governments should be basing the decision on what’s in the best interest of taxpayers,” Freeman said. “Any type of blacklisting would be entirely inappropriate and counterproductive to turning our economy around.”