Talking Policy

Nearly 300 hoteliers from across the country convened in Washington, D.C., Tuesday and Wednesday for the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s Legislative Action Summit (LAS). In nearly 200 appointments with key members of the House and Senate, delegates shared personal and industry-wide views on the impact of several key issues on their businesses. These included sequestration and its effect on domestic and international travel, and promotion of broad-based immigration reform that incorporates the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act and other provisions to ensure increased border security and greater access to temporary workers.

In advance of these congressional visits, hoteliers heard from prominent voices engaged in the current policy discussions in Washington, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The conference also featured expert panels on travel, immigration, and regulatory issues.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, America’s hospitality industry generated $1.9 trillion in total economic activity and supported 14.4 million jobs in 2011. For every 35 international travelers to the United States, one American job is created. In January 2012, President Obama signed an executive order that implemented a National Travel and Tourism Strategy aimed at attracting 100 million new visitors to the United States annually by 2021.

Congressmen Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), and Michael Grimm (R. N.Y.) recently reintroduced the bipartisan JOLT Act in the House in an effort to increase economic growth, create jobs, and generate U.S. tax revenue. The new JOLT Act would accelerate the process for the 12 countries working to earn Visa Waiver Program (VWP) status and would also reduce visa processing wait times. Jim Abrahamson, CEO of Interstate Hotels and Resorts, pointed out that South Korea brought an additional 1 million arrivals to the United States within a year after being added to the VWP in 2008.

Through provisions included in the JOLT Act, AH&LA believes that the lodging industry can recapture America’s historic 17 percent share of worldwide overseas travel, welcome 98 million international visitors to the United States, and create 1.3 million new U.S. jobs by 2020.

“When you look at our ability to attract a significant chunk of business for our industry, sitting out there with international travel…and we’re not going out after it, that is by far the most frustrating thing that I see out in the marketplace,” says Paul Whetsell, president and CEO of Loews Hotels.

Domestic government travel is also vital to the economy, as U.S. meetings directly support 1.7 million U.S. jobs and contribute $106 billion to the U.S. GDP. Arbitrary reductions to federal travel spending can create unintended consequences such as discouraging legitimate business meetings and events.

“For anyone who looks at travel as not necessary, then they’re not in the business world,” Whetsell says. “They don’t understand that sometimes you have to get out in front of people, that teleconferencing and email only get you so far in the business world.”

As of late, the economic ramifications of the sequestration have been especially troublesome to Deborah Marriott Harrison, senior vice president of governmental affairs for Marriott International. Take this week, for example. Travelers experienced flight delays across the country, due to sequester cuts that led the Federal Aviation Administration to furlough air-traffic controllers. “It’s going to devastate our economy,” she says. “People are going to stop traveling.”

The grim news reports about how horrible travel is aren’t helping the matter, Abrahamson adds. “I think it’s absolutely going to have a choking affect on travel right into our busiest season in the summer.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the industry will create more than 141,000 new jobs by 2020. Because lodging creates so many jobs and requires a large local labor force, hotels often have difficulty finding enough people to fill open positions. The H-2B visa program, which provides access to seasonal workers to fill temporary positions, has been critical to the American lodging industry. Marriott Harrison says hotels also would benefit from a guest worker program to fill low-wage, service-type positions—such as housekeepers and banquet servers—that Americans don’t want. “We don’t automate, we don’t outsource,” she says. “We cannot run our hotels without these workers that come into the United States.”

Abrahamson reiterated how entry-level jobs offer considerable growth opportunities. It’s not unheard of for a housekeeper or front desk employee to climb the ladder and join the executive ranks. “These aren’t just jobs, these are careers we’re creating,” he says.

When immigrants enter illegally in search of work, due to the lack of a temporary worker program, border security is compromised. “Border security is important,” Marriott Harrison says. “No industry gets hurt worse than ours if there’s a terrorist attack. People stop traveling or are afraid to go places.”

A proposal in the Gang of Eight’s immigration reform bill, the W Visa, would allow low-skilled immigrants to work year-round in the United States. The visa would be good for three years at a time without limit, and spouses would be able to accompany the individuals who hold the visa and receive employment authorization.

Approximately 11 million undocumented workers currently live in the country. Due to the proliferation of fraudulent identification, employers are often unsure whether the workers they screen are indeed permitted to work in the United States. Marriott Harrison says the solution to immigration needs to include an accurate and efficient E-Verify system, which allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States, with a safe harbor provision so businesses don’t get hammered if they unknowingly hire an illegal worker.

AH&LA also supports the establishment of an earned legalization process through which currently undocumented workers can be brought out of the shadows and given the opportunity to participate in the legal economy.

“If we can fix immigration, and really get it working, that’s just that many more customers for you,” says Doug Smith, assistant secretary for the private sector at the Department of Homeland Security. “That many more people coming in to visit their friends and family who are now naturalized U.S. citizens. It will be a long path but it will be a path that will be important and all the while never letting or guard down on the importance of security.”