Meeting planners should get to know the U.S. Electronic System for Travel Authorization program, says Helen Marano, director, tourism industries, at the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism in Washington, D.C. ESTA requires that all international travelers coming to the United States from visa-waiver countries register in an online database before boarding a plane.

Travelers from the 35 visa-waiver countries have had to fill out an I-94W form before coming to the U.S. The form, which must be completed before each visit, asks where travelers are going, what they are doing there, how long they will stay, and the country in which they claim citizenship. ESTA seeks to streamline that process by requiring that international travelers go to the ESTA Web site and fill out an application before coming to the United States by air or sea. If the application is approved, it is good for two years and can be renewed easily.

The Department of Homeland Security introduced ESTA as a way to screen passengers in advance and improve security, Marano says. ESTA went into effect on January 12, 2009, but it's been a soft rollout, she says. Currently, customs officials are asking for both the I-94W form and the online ESTA application. If travelers arrive at the airport and have not filled out the ESTA form, they will be reminded to do so the next time. But soon, probably sometime in 2010, the I-94W forms will be phased out and the ESTA grace period will end. Visit the ESTA Web site for more information.

With its commercial-service officers, the Department of Commerce can help meeting planners, she says. CSOs can assist with international industry contacts and partnerships; provide international market research; organize trade and catalog shows, missions, and family tours; and provide information on Visit USA Committees, which are part of the U.S. Travel Association and promote international travel to the United States. Meeting professionals can find a local CSO at export.gov/eac/index.asp.

She also advises that planners reach out to a broader base of overseas attendees, not just top executives. Contacting sister associations in other countries and cross-promoting events are other ways to market meetings to international visitors, Marano says. CSOs might be able to assist associations in forming those relationships.

Fish Where the Fish are

The five biggest overseas markets for U.S. business travel — not including Canada and Mexico — are, in order, the U.K., Japan, Germany, France, and South Korea. Of the five, France is performing the best with travel to the United States, down only 1 percent through August. Japan has had the sharpest drop in U.S. travel, down 18 percent through August. “We are focusing on Japan right now and studying why that is happening,” Marano says.

Canada and Mexico have the most visitors to the United States, but numbers for both are down this year. Canada is down about 9 percent, while travel from Mexico is down about 10 percent. Overall, 22 of the top 25 markets posted declines, with only Brazil (+8 percent) and Argentina (+7 percent) showing significant increases.

The U.S. Department of Commerce is projecting a 3 percent increase in international visitation to the U.S. in 2010 and 5 percent increases from 2011 to 2013. Forecasts show strong gains from Canada and Mexico over the next four years, with the fastest growth from South America.