On March 11, a group of travel industry leaders met with President Obama to discuss how meetings and travel can help strengthen the economy. The group, which consisted of companies that serve on the U.S. Travel Association’s board, presented two main agenda items to the president: the need to pass the Travel Promotion Act, which would secure funding for the first-ever U.S. promotional campaign to attract international visitors to the country, and the need to focus on the economic benefits of meetings and events, which generate more than $100 billion in spending and create more than one million jobs in the U.S., according to the association.

The group spoke to the president about the recent downturn in meetings and events across the country and “the role some of the rhetoric has played in that downturn,” said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of public affairs for U.S. Travel. “We were very clear that we think there has been some collateral damage in the effort to restrain the activities of banks, and [as a result] those companies that have not taken any taxpayer assistance have incurred what is being called, ‘bailout backlash.’ The president understood where we are coming from.”

According to Freeman, the group agreed that the troubled economy is driving much of the downturn in travel and meetings, but that the government should not contribute to the problem by presenting a negative perception of meetings and events. “The president can be a great champion in calming down the rhetoric [against meetings and events] and making sure that no additional collateral damage will be done. I think we have an ally in the president.”

U.S. Travel plans to work with the Obama Administration to “take a hard look at new legislation that gets introduced,” as the Treasury Department continues to oversee spending of TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) companies, says Freeman. “It bodes well for this industry that in the first 50 days of this administration, we are there working with them [on travel-related issues]. If nothing else, what came out of [this meeting] is that this administration can be an ally,” he said.

The meeting lasted 45 minutes and took place in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House. While travel industry leaders have interacted with presidents in the past, this was the first meeting for this group. The participants were members of U.S. Travel’s CEO Roundtable, a new group made up of heads of companies on the association’s board with revenues in excess of $1 billion. The meeting was not open to representatives from other meeting and travel associations, including those from the Meeting, Event, and Incentive Coalition.

Participants in the meeting were:

Roger Dow, president and CEO, U.S. Travel Association
Jonathan M. Tisch, chairman and CEO, Loews Hotels; chairman emeritus, U.S. Travel Association
Jim Abrahamson, president, the Americas, IHG
Jim Atchison, president and COO, Busch Entertainment Corp.
Jeff Clarke, CEO and president, Travelport
Howard Frank, vice chairman and COO, Carnival Corp. & plc
Barney Harford, president and CEO, Orbitz Worldwide
W. Stephen Maritz, chairman and CEO, Maritz Holdings Inc
. Bill Marriott, chairman and CEO, Marriott International Inc.
Jay Rasulo, chairman, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
Colin Reed, chairman and CEO, Gaylord Entertainment
Frits van Paasschen, president, CEO and director, Starwood Hotels and Resorts
Tom Williams, chairman and CEO, Universal Parks and Resorts