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Coronavirus devastates Florida’s travel industry. When will it recover?

The head of the U.S. Travel Association, a resident of St. Petersburg, weighs in.
The entrance to the parking lot at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is closed March 16. The coronavirus outbreak has hit the travel industry very hard. [JOHN RAOUX | AP]

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Roger Dow sounded upbeat recently even as he described how the coronavirus had left his beloved travel industry in shambles.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. [U.S. Travel Association]

The situation is going to get worse, but it will eventually rebound, he said. It always does, just like after the 9/11 attacks and the Great Recession. His job as president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association is to help limit the damage and then hasten the recovery. The association has more than 1,100 members, ranging from Alcatraz Cruises to ZooTampa at Lowry Park.

Dow, 74, normally commutes each week through Tampa International Airport from his home in St. Petersburg to the association’s office in Washington, D.C. These days, he works mostly from home, unless the White House calls and asks him to meet with the president, which happened last week.

Dow spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about the White House meeting, the deep layoffs in the travel industry, and how Florida is particularly susceptible to the downturn. The following are excerpts from the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Do you normally get summoned to the White House?

No. The call came on Monday. “Can you be at the White House on Tuesday?” What was I going to say? Of course, I was going to be there. I’ve got to represent our industry.

How did the meeting go?

President Trump appeared very dedicated to getting through this crisis. No matter how you feel about the president, he appeared willing to throw as much at it to shorten the duration. He wants to make sure people keep getting paychecks and businesses don’t go under.

How badly is the travel industry getting hurt?

We think 4.6 million people are going to lose their jobs in the travel industry by the end of April. That will cost about $355 billion. Just the job losses in the travel industry will take national unemployment from 3.5 percent to 6.3 percent. So it's extraordinarily serious now, and it’s going to get worse.

How do you feel about the government’s response?

I have mixed feelings about closing restaurants and bars and some of the other measures. The feeling is the more we clamp it all down over the next 15 days or so the more it will curtail the spread and shorten the duration. There’s a lot of common sense to that. But the people losing their jobs are the ones that need them the most — the waiters, the waitresses, the busboys, the convention service people, the front desk people at hotels. They’re all flat out of work. We’re working very hard in Washington to try and get a major package to pay these people.

A lot of industries will be looking for help from the federal government. What do you want Americans to know about the people your organization represents?

When people think of the travel industry, they think of big companies like Delta Air Lines, Marriott hotels and Disney. What they don’t know is that 83 percent of all travel business is small business. They are the people that supply all those hotels, and they are the mom-and-pop tour guides, the restaurants and the gift shops. They aren’t rich, and right now they’re hurting.

Are you particularly worried about Florida?

Look at the two biggest tourism states — Florida and California. They have similar numbers of tourists. While Florida has a diverse economy, it’s not nearly as big and diverse as California, so Florida will feel the impact on tourism more than California.

Tourism is really the lifeblood of this state, so Florida is going to get hurt worse than probably any other state on a proportionate basis.

Once the virus is under control, how soon will people go back to traveling?

They will travel, but history tells us that it will take about 12 to 18 months for the numbers to climb back to anywhere near where they were. Think of the 9/11 attacks. The next year was a disaster for the travel industry, but 2003 saw the rebound. On the positive side, a lot of people said no one would get back on a plane after 9/11. Well, the airline industry just had a decade of the best years they've ever had.

For a while it will be a buyer’s market, right?

Absolutely, there will be lots of deals. Two-for-one cruises, cheap airfares, reduced hotel room prices — all to get people back in the mood to travel. I think you’re going to see hygiene standards within the industry, which are already good, get even better. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the cruise lines and airlines get every health professional they can to use their services, so they will come back and say, “We’ve never seen such cleanliness. It’s safer than your home.”

How has your job changed over the last couple of months?

I sat down at 7 a.m. today in my office. It’s now nearly 6 p.m., and I haven’t gotten out of my chair for more than a few minutes. It’s one call after another from a CEO of an attraction company to tour operators. They want to make sure they aren’t forgotten as the federal government figures out how to respond.

Another change: In the past three years, I don’t think we’ve talked to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Now, we talk to them every single day, sometimes twice a day.

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