“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 eastern time on June 17. Saldaña, director of guest services at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, is the winner of the U.S. Travel Association’s contest to pick a “Face of Travel, ” a spokesperson from the industry trenches who can 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 interviews accompanied by U.S. Travel’s president and CEO, Roger Dow; and visited with congressmen on Capitol Hill, where the Travel Promotion Act is being considered by the U.S. Senate.
“My message is very simple,” says Saldaña. “We need to keep business travel happening.” People, he says, 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. I have a job; 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.”
U.S. Travel hopes Saldaña can help people recognize the far-reaching impact of the meetings and travel industry. “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 Dow. “But our industry is not understood, and I think the more people understand this industry through folks like Paco, the more it’s going to generate support and keep harmful legislation from happening.”
Saldaña moved to the United States in 1995 and joined the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island the next year as a busboy. He steadily worked his way up the ranks, learned English, married a fellow Ritz-Carlton employee, and earned his U.S. citizenship in 2008. He was one of 270 applicants for 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. Speaking of Saldaña, Dow said, “I think there was a human connection. He has a story to tell.”