DC Influencer: Jonathan Grella, US Travel Association

Jonathan Grella, SVP, public affairs at the US Travel Association, talks about customs reform and leveraging social platforms to raise key issues.

Jonathan Grella, SVP, public affairs at the US Travel Association, talks about customs reform and leveraging social platforms to raise key issues.

The campaign to reform the customs process is almost a year old. How has the effort evolved and changed public and congressional opinion?
We're in the early stages of a relationship with a number of gateway airports. We have also worked with the Gateway Airports Council and really benefitted from the partnerships.

In terms of impact, US Customs and Border Protection officer furloughs were delayed and there's now a new program that provides real-time flyers with wait times for customs lines.

The House and Senate have security appropriations bills providing funding for additional officers. The Senate immigration bill passed last year included funding for 3,500 additional Customs and Border Protection officers and set a goal of screening 80% of air passengers at high-volume airports in under a half hour.

What unique elements did you use to reframe the debate on a limited budget?
Overseas travelers are avoiding the US due to lengthy entry procedures and inefficient practices at our gateway airports, according to a new survey by Consensus Research Group and the US Travel Association. By experience and word of mouth, at least 100 million overseas travelers are receiving the message to avoid travel to the US - costing the economy at least $95 billion and 518,900 jobs.

So we employed a cheeky tactic by distributing a travelers' relief kit to the media, which included instant coffee, energy bars, and a copy of War and Peace, which enabled us to discuss the issue in a lighthearted way. On TravelersVoice.org, we captured testimonials from more than 100 travelers.

We also ran an advertising campaign in some Beltway publications and issued a report called Gateway to Jobs and Growth, which we distributed around Capitol Hill.

A Facebook effort reached more than 1.1 million people and resulted in 24,000 interactions. On Twitter, we reached about 10 million people and generated 150,000 engagements. Both were done with very limited budgets.

What is still to come?
We have a number of priorities this year, not only in the immigration debate, which continues to take shape, but also regarding infrastructure and Brand USA [the national marketing effort promoting international travel to the US], which is due to be re-authorized in the next year and a half.

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