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Former Tourism Toronto chief slides into Brand USA marketing hot seat

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David Whitaker was hired in May of this year as chief marketing officer for Brand USA, which was set up in 2010 to market the U.S. to the world. He served as head of Tourism Toronto from 2007 until taking the Brand USA job. Prior to his Toronto job the Georgia native spent 17 years with the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. I sat down with him this week in Orlando at IPW, the massive, annual U.S. tourism session that attracts thousands of travel, trade and media types to talk business and book U.S. travel. Whitaker was in constant motion at the Brand USA pavilion on the main floor, dashing to and fro and huddling with folks from around the world all day long.

Q. So, how’s the job?

A. I’ve been here three weeks now and it’s interesting to be thrown right in the deep end at IPW. But I’m very familiar with IPW through my role with Miami. We hosted IPW twice. So it’s a thrill to be here. It’s an honour to represent your country. I’m excited about what Brand USA is doing and about what more can be done. We’re still a relatively young organization. We just completed our fourth year. The first two or three were just getting organized. Now I like to think we have stability with a five-year commitment from the federal government. More importantly, Brand USA has more than 500 partners with states, major cities, territories, and those partners are critical to our success as we leverage our resources.”

Q. Is it different selling the U.S. versus Toronto?

A. You know, it’s funny. I had 17 years in Miami, selling Miami, very much a part of the United States. Then it was off to Toronto. You can go back and Google all the stories. People were asking “What’s this American doing.” (Smiles) “But I’m quite proud of the track record in seven years. But a great experience for me was looking down into the United States through a different lens. You know, as you can appreciate, Americans are very centric in our thinking. We’re very proud of our country. But then you land in Toronto in 2007 and the Canadian view is different. I hate to generalize, but the Canadian view of America isn’t exactly the way Americans view themselves. So for me it’s been a great experience. It’s given me a whole new sensitivity in how we communicate. I mean, the very notion of the word America is a debatable notion. And here we are wrapping ourselves around (the phrase) Discover America. So it’s something we’re going to look at.”

(About three hours later a vocal group called Voices of Liberty was singing a song at a massive IPW lunch and extolling the virtues of “America” to an audience that included sales people, travel reps and journalists from around the globe. I didn’t hear anyone complain, but it was interesting to watch in light of Whitaker’s comments).

The Grand Canyon is one of the iconic sights in the U.S., which next year will celebrate 100 years of the U.S. National Park Service.

The Grand Canyon is one of the iconic sights in the U.S., which next year will celebrate 100 years of the U.S. National Park Service.

Q. Do you suppose your time in Toronto was more of an asset than people might think?

A. Toronto will always be part of my life. We thought Americans looked at us one way. Quite frankly there’s still such an opportunity to educate Americans on Canada. Vice versa the Canadian opinion of the U.S. has been shaped by very constant travel patterns across the border to sun destinations, escape destinations, summer vacations. And there’s just so much more to the United States.

Q. Okay, so what do Americans think of Canada?

A. I want to be careful. I’d rather say there’s so much they don’t know about Canadians as opposed to what they know. I will tell you clearly, though, and this is why I think Toronto has stood out. But Americans have no idea of the diversity of Toronto, of Ontario, of Vancouver. And that’s a tremendous opportunity because the world has become a global mosaic. We had great success in Toronto capitalizing on that diversity. We’re looking at doing the same thing. Quite frankly that’s an issue that’s germane to the United States.

Q. The Brand USA Rosanne Cash commercial feels very much like a Toronto promotion, with U.S. settings.

A. One marketing strategy is people want to find a little bit of themselves when they travel; Broadway in New York or the Louvre in Paris. It elevates you. You’re cool when you go to South Beach. We want to be sure to give Canadian visitors a tremendous palette they can choose from, so diversity is a great virtue.

The strength of Wall Street has boosted the American dollar to high levels, which is making it harder to attract Canadians and other visitors.

The strength of Wall Street has boosted the American dollar to high levels, which is making it harder to attract Canadians and other visitors.

Q. In terms of growing the Canadian market for U.S. travel, what’s the biggest challenge? Other than the Canadian-U.S. dollar issue?

A. (Laughs) You beat me to it. But isn’t it ironic that seven years ago when I went to Toronto, all of a sudden, boom, the Canadian dollar went to par. After two decades. (Laughs again) We had to fight that battle but we did it successfully. And then I come to the U.S., so maybe it’s me, but boom the Canadian dollar is now below 80 cents. But you cannot, and this is a valid discussion in Brazil with the Real and other markets in Europe, but we cannot put the United States on sale. Just like nine years ago, I was so proud in Toronto when the dollar was high, we didn’t cheapen the brand in Canada. Because it had been cheapened for decades with things like “Come here, it’s cheaper.” And you’ve got to position yourself. It’s not about price point, it’s about the experience. And that’s what we held onto quite strongly in Toronto and it worked well for us. I was quite pleased over the years.
I was well known for having these phrases over the years so here’s my new one. You don’t offer a person on a diet an all-you-can eat buffet. So that’s an oversimplified David Whitaker southern phrase on how we’re not going to make sure we don’t cheapen our brand in those markets where the exchange rate is working against us. It’s all about the experience. The real has been up and down for decades. When I was in Miami it was up and down; huge swings. But in Miami we stayed true to our brand and true to our message and our customer base. And, by the way, true to our tour operators and travel agents. We spent a lot of resources, as do other destinations, with the trade and travel industry. That’s why IPW is the best example of them. You don’t abandon your core customers; you work with them, collaborate with them. You often help sponsor them to help keep them active and keep them relevant and then three to five years it pays off. Looking at Canada, now that we’re enjoying this 20 per cent difference, my advice is don’t offer deals and don’t discount the destination. Don’t say come here you can save 20 per cent. We did that for decades in Canada and it takes decades to get out of that.

Q. As you know, Canadian tourism was looking for $35 million a year over three years in matching funds from Ottawa to boost our marketing efforts in the U.S. The Harper government recently offered up $10 million a year. So it’s $30 million in funds the private sector can match, not $105 million. But here in the U.S., Brand USA has been pushing tourism at the federal level. Why does the Obama administration get it and the Canadian government doesn’t?

Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada is the northern half of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a joint operation of Canada and the U.S.

Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada is the northern half of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a joint operation of Canada and the U.S.

A. Sometimes you gotta take the small steps. I am a big fan of David Goldstein, a huge fan. (Goldstein, former chief of the Travel Industry Association of Canada, was recently named president and CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission, which has been renamed Destination Canada). We worked together when he was at TIAC. I am thrilled that the government and the board made that choice. That in itself is a pretty big signal for them. And I totally think he gets it. The other thing is Brand USA is a great example of a fully optimized, private-public partnership. I know my good friend Terry Mundell of the Greater Toronto Hotel Association always talks about; that’s a big part of his advocacy, the public-private partnership. Politicians often talk about public-private partnerships but it takes resources from both sides. So I think there’s a tremendous opportunity. The $10 million a year is a start because it will be matched. And so there’s a great opportunity to strengthen partnerships with hotel chains, with destinations who have private sponsors, etc..

Q. But why did it take the Canadian government so long to get to this stage?

A. Well, look how long it took the United States to adopt the Travel Promotion Act (creating Brand USA). Travel industries in the U.S. were arguing for a national tourism organization for decades, and it’s just now happening. This is a good example of this. So Destination Canada, it’s well documented the limited resources that are on the table. But success breeds success. The numbers after some sluggish periods are starting to look up. So now you get some momentum established, some wind in your sails. Governments love to support winning industries. I encourage the Canadian tourism industry to keep celebrating those wins with their provincial and municipal and federal partners. We all like winners. And, again, I’m using careful words, but I learned in eight years that Canadians have a hard time celebrating victories. And all I ever did in eight years was continue to encourage us to put our chests, walk with a swagger and say proudly ‘We have one of the great country brands and destinations in the world.’ And the federal government needs to be in step with that pride in their tourism product. And you can’t emphasize that enough.

At this point Whitaker’s assistant comes to pull him to his next appointment. But before he leaves he has one more bit to add.

“I’d really appreciate it you mentioned something for me. Whoever takes over for me in Toronto will have an absolutely tremendous staff. Just tremendous.”

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