The meetings industry has gotten the attention of the Obama administration and has a strong supporter in Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, according to a high-ranking official with the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, speaking at the Exhibition and Convention Executive Forum in Washington on June 11.

“You are so important to this global economy and this recovery,” said Helen Marano, director, Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, speaking at ECEF, an invitation-only event attended by 218 exhibition executives. Marano, whose office reports to the Department of Commerce, said that government officials have “gotten the message” about the importance of meetings. A particularly strong advocate for meetings is Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Locke recently met with the OTTI’s Travel and Tourism Advisory Board—which includes hospitality industry leaders—and told them he believes that meetings and events are vital to the economy and that the rhetoric about meetings on both Capitol Hill and in the media needs to be toned down.

Meetings and travel are “in the dialogue” in Washington, much more now than they have been in the past, Marano added. As the head of the OTTI, she feels more positive about the attention travel issues are getting than she has for a long time. She added that commerce and travel officials are open to speaking about travel and meetings in the media and at events.

“They are all very tuned in to it, especially the meetings side,” she said, including President Obama, who met with travel industry leaders in March. Geoff Freeman, senior vice president at U.S. Travel, who also spoke at ECEF, said a big reason for the recognition in Washington is that the industry stood up for itself. “Because we fought back, these issues have gotten attention like never before,” said Freeman. Speaking of the meeting at the White House, Freeman said the conversation with the president was a surprise. They had initially planned to meet with Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council, and Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, but Obama expressed an interest in attending and met with the hospitality leaders for 40 minutes.