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No matter how bad the economy gets there is one industry that can never scrap its annual convention to save money. You don't want to cut back on travel too much when you are the travel industry. About 200,000 tourism and travel jobs evaporated last year. Still, NPR's Greg Allen found a festive mood at the travel convention in Miami Beach.
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GREG ALLEN: Then again, it's hard to be gloomy when you're in the middle of a party. It's a street band in Little Havana trying to start an impromptu Congo line. Representatives of travel companies from around the world are in Miami this week to make their deals with U.S. suppliers, resorts, hotels, and the like. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that deals made during this convention will generate more than $3.5 billion in travel over the next few years.
In the hall at the Miami Beach convention center, more than 1,000 U.S. travel companies have set up shop. One entire aisle is devoted to the InterContinental Hotels Group, a company that includes the Crown Plaza and Holiday Inn brands. Industry-wide, hotel revenues in April were down 20 percent from last year.
Jimmy Thomas with InterContinental says his company is doing better than that, especially in the larger markets. But in order to fill their hotels, room prices, he says, have dropped substantially.
Mr. JIMMY THOMAS (InterContinental Hotel Group): In many markets they're down to post-9/11 rates, and I'm not going to mention any markets, but some of them are even below where 9/11 was. New York has come down considerably from where it was, like, even a year ago. There's tremendous bargains out there. You just have to be able to look for them.
ALLEN: Surprisingly, leisure travel has remained relatively strong. Like the economy in general, it has taken a hit, but is down just two percent from last year.
A bigger problem for the U.S. travel industry has been the sudden and steep decline in business travel and meetings. The industry is still feeling fallout from the news last year that AIG sent its executives to an expensive resort for a business meeting just days after receiving an $85 billion bailout. That ignited a firestorm of media coverage and denunciations on Capitol Hill.
The head of the U.S. Travel Association, Roger Dow, says business meetings had been a $100 billion a year industry.
Mr. ROGER DOW (U.S. Travel Association): The meetings, there was a lot of damage done by those articles and by those stories, by elected officials, you know, almost vilifying people for going for a meeting, and that's a shame because that's a legitimate way that America does business. You know, when people don't go to a trade show or convention, they don't buy the products that the people are selling and it has a domino effect on our economy.
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ALLEN: Back in Little Havana, buyers and sellers of U.S. travel services are enjoying paella and listening to a three-piece Cuban band.
Tucker Stover is one of the sellers. He's travel sales manager for Sheraton's downtown Denver hotel. Like others I spoke to, he says business travel is still down, but bookings for meetings and conferences are beginning to pick up for 2010.
One factor in the hotel's favor, Sheraton is a mid-tier brand, a safer choice for publicity-conscious executives than luxury hotels and spas. But Stover says buyers are expecting low prices.
Mr. TUCKER STOVER (Travel Sales Manager): Well, the associations and the corporations know that this is their time. It's a great time to buy 'cause they have a lot of leveraging power, and so as they look forward into the year, you know, they may not be able to have the funds to host their meetings this year, but next year they'll have a little bit more time to save up and it's showing benefits for them.
ALLEN: Miami, the city that's hosting this year's convention, is also feeling the effects of the travel downturn, but less so than some other large markets. A major reason is foreign travel. Across the country, overseas visitors are down some 10 percent, but for travelers from Europe and Latin America, lured by beaches, shopping, and a good exchange rate, Miami remains a top U.S. destination.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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