“I can now say it — I am Paco and I am the face of travel!”

That was a Twitter post from PACO SALDAÑA just before noon on June 17. Saldaña, director of guest services at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, in Amelia Island, Fla., won the U.S. Travel Association's “Face of Travel” contest to pick a spokesperson from the industry trenches who could talk about the consequences of the downturn in corporate meetings and events.

On his first day on the “job,” Saldaña appeared in a full-page ad in USA Today, conducted press interviews accompanied by U.S. Travel President and CEO Roger Dow, and visited with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where the Travel Promotion Act was under consideration by the U.S. Senate.

Saldaña was one of 270 applicants to be the Face of Travel, each of whom submitted a short video explaining why he or she was qualified to speak for the meetings and travel industry. U.S. Travel narrowed down the candidates to six and then asked the public to vote for a favorite. More than 16,000 votes came in. Applicants ranged from meeting managers to hotel workers to convention bureau professionals, but Saldaña's story, that of a hard-working immigrant, caught the attention of voters.

Saldaña moved to the United States in 1995 and joined The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, the following year as a busboy. He worked his way up the ranks, learned English, married a fellow Ritz-Carlton employee, and earned his U.S. citizenship in 2008.

U.S. Travel hopes Saldaña can help people recognize the far-reaching impact of meetings and travel. “This industry employs probably 10 million more people than the auto industry — in every state, every nook and cranny, from Fargo to Florida to New York City,” says U.S. Travel's Dow. “But our industry is not understood, and I think the more that people understand this industry through folks like Paco, the more it's going to generate support and keep harmful legislation from happening.”

Soon after he was introduced as the Face of Travel, we talked with Saldaña about his role as ambassador for meetings industry workers.

Corporate Meetings & Incentives: What key points do you want to get across about meetings and travel?

Paco Saldaña: My message is very simple: We need to keep business travel happening. People need to understand that this industry is so important, not just to me but to millions and millions of Americans. [Workers] are in the situation of not knowing if they're going to have a job or continue with their careers. But if we have people traveling, local economies grow. Then I have a job, and my co-worker has a job. Our bellmen, our housekeepers will be able to stay in their homes, will be able to feed their families.

CMI: Have you seen the effect of the downturn in business travel on your resort community?

Saldaña: It is very concerning. Companies are still canceling. People are still afraid to travel because of being criticized. So we of course have layoffs. Some of my friends have lost their jobs. We're doing a little bit more with less. Some businesses in my small community have closed. When there are cancellations in our hotel, whether it's leisure travel or international travel or business travel, we suffer and our community suffers.

CMI: What impact do you hope your voice can have?

Saldaña: I would like to see companies not be afraid to travel. We need to showcase the country for international travelers, and get everyone to understand the value of a meeting. When companies meet, it's a huge investment for them. There are ideas, there's sharing. Those new ideas can be put back into the economy and help to create new jobs.

That's what I want people to understand — that meetings are important to business, and to the people behind the meetings. There are millions and millions of men and women in this industry who are at risk of losing their jobs. And the most important thing is the American dream — you want to have a career and care for your family. That's my biggest concern.

To follow Saldaña on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/faceoftravel. Videos submitted by the Face of Travel finalists are at www.meetingsmeanbusiness.com.

Baggage Fees Soar

The airline industry's increase in revenues from baggage fees in the first quarter of 2009 ($566.3 million) versus the first quarter of 2008 ($122.6 million):

+362%
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

Meetingsnet.com:

  • The Green Meeting Industry Council has launched its first official affiliate, the GMIC Oregon Chapter. Chapters are also being organized in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Florida, Northern California, and Southern California.

  • Verified Identity Pass Inc., which ran fast-lane airport security checkpoints through its Clear program, went out of business in June, closing its 18 locations and leaving the Registered Traveler program in disarray.

  • Starwood Hotels & Resorts and StarCite, the Philadelphia-based meeting technology company, have agreed on a new partnership that will allow meeting planners' electronic requests for proposal sent from StarCite's online marketplace to directly connect with Starwood's sales automation system.

  • Through a new program, members of the Professional Convention Management Association can now use Starwood Preferred Planner and Starwood Preferred Guest award points, or Starpoints, toward the purchase of PCMA offerings, including meeting registrations.