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U.S. Travel Association CEO loves living in St. Petersburg

Roger Dow commutes to Washington, D.C., but owns a home in downtown St. Petersburg because, he says, ‘‘It’s one of the only places in the country that I can think of where you can eat outside with a view of the bay, see a baseball game, shop and stay at a gorgeous hotel like the Vinoy.’’
Roger Dow commutes to Washington, D.C., but owns a home in downtown St. Petersburg because, he says, ‘‘It’s one of the only places in the country that I can think of where you can eat outside with a view of the bay, see a baseball game, shop and stay at a gorgeous hotel like the Vinoy.’’
Published Jun. 7, 2015

Roger Dow just sort of fell into the travel industry.

Dow was working for a Marriott hotel as a lifeguard when he was a teenager growing up in New Jersey. At that time, the chain only had six hotels.

"I remember someone telling me, 'Marriott is going to be a name people know one day,' so I decided I should stick around," Dow said.

He spent 34 years with Marriott International, watching the chain grow from six properties to 100. It now has 4,000 hotels around the world.

Dow, a St. Petersburg resident, is now the president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that advocates for tourism in America and puts on one of the largest travel industry trade shows in the world.

Dow, 68, was in Orlando last week for the 2015 IPW conference, which drew 6,000 tour operators, international travel writers, visitors bureau personnel and airline representatives to Florida.

So you work in Washington but you live here in St. Petersburg?

I commute to Washington, D.C., during the week and it's very easy using Tampa International Airport. I can get there easily in the morning and be home in time to have dinner with my wife.

I travel a lot for this job, so I'm not always going back and forth just from St. Pete and D.C. I spend usually three days a week in Washington and work remotely from St. Petersburg the rest of the week.

I was supposed to retire a few years ago and then again last year, but the board talked me into staying on for a few more years. D.C. is my temporary home. I'm looking forward to being in St. Petersburg full time very soon.

You've traveled and lived all over. Why settle in St. Pete?

We bought a house in downtown St. Petersburg in 2012 on North Shore Drive. We've been renovating it forever. I like to say that we bought the ugliest house in St. Pete. But we're very happy living in downtown. It's one of the only places in the country that I can think of where you can eat outside with a view of the bay, see a baseball game, shop and stay at a gorgeous hotel like the Vinoy.

I first came to St. Petersburg years ago when I was working for Marriott. Stouffer Hotels (now Renaissance Hotels) had just purchased the Vinoy in downtown St. Pete. My wife and I knew we wanted to live in Florida, so we decided to check it out. That was in 1991. Back then we were told not to leave the hotel because the city wasn't safe. We came back to St. Pete in 2001 for the Super Bowl. The city was like night and day. So much was going on and it was much safer and younger. It's definitely not ''God's waiting room'' anymore.

We knew we wanted to live in an active place with plenty to do and St. Pete is it. The only issue now is that my son lives in Chicago. So … we'll be going back and forth about the Blackhawks and the Lightning.

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How does the Tampa Bay region stand out from others in Florida from a tourism standpoint?

Tampa/St. Pete in a lot of ways is one of the best kept secrets in America. There are so few cities in the U.S. that have preserved the bayfront views like St. Pete has done.

Our board of directors for the U.S. Travel Association is having its annual meeting at the Vinoy in July. It's great to be home for the meeting, but it's also great to promote the region to our many board members who work for some of the biggest companies in the world like Disney, American Express, Universal Orlando and others.

We'll dine in downtown St. Pete and at the brand new Sundial shopping area. We'll do a dinner cruise on the bay from downtown Tampa, too. They'll see all the highlights.

There's so much coming to Tampa soon, too, that is really exciting to watch. Jeff Vinik is going to do wonders to the downtown and Channelside part of downtown.

Tell me more about IPW.

This is the seventh time Orlando has hosted IPW (International Pow Wow), which is more than any other host city. The deals that are signed here, between tour operators and destinations' visitor bureaus, will equate to $4.7 billion in future travel to the U.S. The host cities see tremendous benefit, too, and bid to host the event each year. Orlando will see a $470 million impact from hosting IPW this year.

What's great about this show is that all the destinations in Florida will be able to draft on Orlando as the host city. Even cities as small as Tarpon Springs will feel a boost from IPW being in Orlando this year.

A big component of the show is pitching stories to international travel journalists. Why is that so important to the tourism industry?

Journalists come to IPW to look for new cities to write about, but also because of the experience. A lot of times they can piggy-back trips before or after IPW. While they're at IPW, they have the chance to talk to different cities and find out what's new and maybe a new angle that might affect their readers.

Writeups in travel publications are extremely important to the tourism industry. Travelers care about others' experiences and are willing to read about it. If it's not in a newspaper or a magazine, it didn't happen.

We give out an annual award to travel writers who write about the destination city that hosted the last IPW conference. So someone will win based on what they wrote about Chicago.

How will IPW continue to grow?

One of my biggest fears was always what happens if IPW falls apart. With the rise of the Internet, fewer people feel like they need to go to trade shows to stay current or do business. But you know what? The last time Orlando hosted IPW was in 2010. Attendance is up more than 27 percent since then in 2015. IPW isn't like traditional trade shows, we're still growing.

I think we'll continue to be a must-attend event for the travel industry as long as we change as the world changes. We launched an app so people can see their schedules on their phones instead of carrying around our printed version. We use an online appointment scheduler so tour operators can meet up with the vendors they want to do business with. We just need to stay current.

The travel industry is in the business of selling stories and emotions. It's hard to get that kind of experience if you're not doing business face-to-face.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com. Follow @sunbizgriffin.