Subscribe for 99¢

Community and industry leaders gathered at Ballpark Village in downtown St. Louis on Tuesday as part of a push to promote tourism in St. Louis and Missouri.

For travelers to the U.S., destinations like California, Florida and New York might automatically come to mind, said Tori Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents over 1,200 member organizations. The association decided to hold a series of events in cities such as St. Louis to promote the economic impact of travel. The association’s next stop is Columbus, Ohio.

It’s essential to get more people around the country talking up St. Louis, said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, in an interview with the Post-Dispatch.

“I still think it’s one of the best-kept secrets in North America,” Dow said of Missouri and the St. Louis area. “We’ve got to get the word out, because once you come here you want to come back,” Dow said.

Dow noted that he and his wife previously lived in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.

Earlier this month the U.S. Travel Association reported that the market share for U.S. global long-haul travel fell to 11.7% in 2018, down from 13.7% in 2015.

It also forecast that the trend would continue, to less than 11% in 2020.

Looking ahead

Panelists spoke about the potential to draw travelers to St. Louis for conferences, citing the $175 million plan to expand and upgrade America’s Center in downtown St. Louis.

“Our convention center is great, but it could use a face-lift,” said St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. “Without a great convention center we’re not going to fill those hotel rooms.”

The recent convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Krewson said, brought more than 30,000 people to the city.

“You could tell,” Krewson said. “I mean you had to elbow your way through ... And that was OK. We’re fine with that.”

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page attended Tuesday’s event, and pointed to several signs of the region’s evolving tourism economy.

Since he first moved to the area in 1992, Page said, he’s seen remarkable growth in hotels, particularly in areas like Westport and Chesterfield. He also noted a shift in the retail industry that has led to new projects.

One good example, he noted, is the former St. Louis Mills, an outlet mall in Hazelwood that may become a $92 million youth sports complex called POWERPlex.

Legislative efforts

The U.S. Travel Association is pushing for legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would reauthorize funding for Brand USA, an organization that aims to promote the U.S. as a travel destination.

The organization is funded by a fee collected from international travelers entering the country, as well as cash and in-kind contributions from the private sector.

The bill has received support from Republicans and Democrats. It has seen opposition from some airlines, wary of the extra cost placed on travelers, but Blunt and Dow both expressed optimism Tuesday that the reauthorization would pass.

“I don’t think it should take a major effort,” Blunt told the Post-Dispatch at Tuesday’s event.

International perception

Several recent travel advisories have suggested that travelers postpone trips to the U.S.

On Aug. 7 Amnesty International issued a travel advisory for the United states, “in light of ongoing high levels of gun violence in the country.”

On Aug. 5 the Venezuelan government issued an advisory suggesting its citizens postpone trips to the U.S. in light of recent violence. The notice suggested that travelers avoid 10 cities, including St. Louis, citing a Forbes article on dangerous U.S. cities.

“We don’t have any data right now that demonstrates that these advisories are negatively impacting travel,” said Barnes, of the U.S. Travel Association. “We are looking into it.”

Get updates every weekday morning about the latest news in the St. Louis business community.