Over the blare of recorded music at Washington, DC's Planet Hollywood Restaurant, participants in the 4th annual Meeting Industry Legislative Action Day (MILAD) traded notes between visits to Congressional offices on March 6. Sponsored by Meeting Professionals International (MPI), MILAD brought together 331 meeting planners, hoteliers, association officials, and convention and visitor bureau representatives. Their chief lobbying issues were increased funding for the U.S. National Tourism Organization (NTO), support for a traveler safety program, and an increase in the tax break for business meals and entertainment.
Last year the meetings industry (along with other tourism organizations) helped convince Congress to pass legislation setting up a public/private partnership to run the NTO, which replaced the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration. This year lobbyists focused on supplementing the NTO's current meager funding. The travel industry made a good-faith effort to provide seed money when the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) gave $750,000 plus in-kind services for the 1997 NTO budget, according to MPI's CEO, Edwin Griffin, Jr., CAE.
Proposals for additional funding sources for the NTO include an airline departure fee-possibly reflected in the ticket price-or a fee paid at the airport by both Americans and foreign travelers. MPI also revived the idea of adding to U.S. passport application fees. But the airlines will undoubtedly oppose any measure that significantly raises the cost of airline tickets, one lobbyist contended. Other options mentioned were a general treasury appropriation and a total industry self-assessment, which are both long shots, as well.
To find a compromise on a funding plan is clearly an uphill battle. No less than $100 million a year should be spent on marketing the U.S., say travel industry officials.
If no permanent financing is found by October 1998, the NTO will have to fold its tent. Lobbyist Aubrey King, formerly of the TIA, pointed out that a permanent NTO could help attract "international meetings to the U.S.," a market overlooked by the former U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration.
Delegates also lobbied for Congressional endorsement of a toll-free emergency line for inbound foreign visitors. In a program crafted by the National Traveler Security Council and spearheaded by the National Tour Association, visitors could contact multi- lingual operators for help with travel problems. It is unclear if Congressional approval is required, but the industry is banking on federal inspection officials to hand out a so-called Welcome Passport, which would contain safety information, the INS I-94 information form, and the U.S. Customs declaration.
MPI's agenda also called on Congress to restore the business meal and entertainment deduction to 100 percent-or at least bring it back to 80 percent. LeeAnn Harle, an independent meeting planner from Dallas, told Rep. Ken Bentsen (D-TX) that the business meal deduction encourages her to make deals over lunch, keeping her business competitive with firms having large promotional budgets. Since there is little chance of an increased tax break without a revenue offset, MPI's defensive strategy is to protect the existing 50 percent write-off. Reps. Charles Bass (R-VT) and other House members contacted during MILAD appeared open-minded, asking delegates such as Kelli McCann, meetings manager of the Society for Human Resource Management, in Alexandria, VA, for numbers on the economic impact of raising the tax deduction to 80 percent.
Fairness in music licensing legislation was a top issue for MILAD in 1996, but this year it was almost an afterthought among the delegates. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) reintroduced legislation this year that would remove tradeshow organizers from "vicarious liability" for payment of licensing fees if an exhibitor played unlicensed music. But the bill is currently "stuck in committee," as one MILAD lobbyist noted, referring to the judiciary panel headed by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT). And there was not a concerted effort, as last year, to focus on the issue.
For Susie Carr, CMP, meetings and travel coordinator for the Annuity Board of the Southern Baptist Conference, MILAD "demystified the political process." Whatever the outcome of MPI's agenda, this first-time participant found the process "awesome and focused." Rep. Ralph Hall (D-TX), who personally spoke to her delegation, "was down to earth and up on the issues," said Carr.
Last year, MILAD drew 250 people to Washington, representing ten associations. This year, an 11th organization, MPI's Potomac chapter, joined MILAD as a sponsor and fielded 55 delegates.