Geoff Freeman is used to working under fire. Before joining the US Travel Association (then called the Travel Industry Association [TIA]) in 2006, he worked for clients like the Partnership for Prescription Assistance and entities like Freddie Mac and the American Association of Health Plans.
“It was attractive to come to... a white hat industry,” says Freeman, SVP of public affairs for the US Travel Association (USTA). “It's a different type of challenge.”
He notes that while the travel industry has been known to be marketing-heavy, not policy-focused, he reorganized the public affairs department to house government relations, communications, grassroots and ally development, and research. The public affairs team has 15 staffers.
“We now have an organization that embraces its role in Washington,” he notes. “[The industry is] finding its relevance, its footing, [and] its way in a town [in which] it wasn't used to being active.”
Putting the four practices together, including government relations and communications, is unique for a trade group, Freeman adds, especially because travel was not a US industry that required public affairs and policy work.
“Travel [has become] very much affected by Washington,” explains Freeman, who manages government relations, strategic communications, and grassroots mobilization for the DC-based nonprofit. “It's a whole new day for travel, especially post-9/11. It's required us to build a new type of organization.”
The USTA launched its first major effort in Washington to promote travel – business travel, specifically – in the face of critics who loudly oppose the use of travel, meetings, and events for companies that have accepted bailout funds.
Focusing on the message that travel is a beneficial part of business and a potential player in the economic recovery, the USTA kicked off a public affairs initiative with APCO Worldwide, a firm that Freeman worked for until 2006. The culmination of that effort was a March 11 meeting for travel executives with President Barack Obama.
“Geoff has an ability to... draw all elements together,” says Robert Schooling, MD at APCO's Washington office. “He's got a sharp strategic mind and a good command of the available tactics.”
The USTA itself is new, the result of the TIA-Business Travel Roundtable merger on January 1.
In 2006, Freeman also served as executive director of the Discover America Partnership, a coalition of travel organizations and businesses. That group pushed a message that encouraged international visitors, through visa and entry reform.
Freeman sees travel and tourism, traditionally an inward-facing industry in the US, turning outward as it aims to communicate with policymakers, business leaders, and individuals. He adds that other nations have ministers of tourism and spend millions of dollars to promote travel within their country.
“For whatever reason, travel and tourism are things in this country we don't view as an industry,” says Freeman. “This industry knows what it is. It is not an industry out there saving lives every day. It's an industry that's about selling a commodity, selling an experience.”
SVP of public affairs, US Travel Association
April 2004-May 2006
VP, APCO Worldwide