International: It's Time to Go Global

Head of Research and Insights
Published 5/8/12
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The U.S. is now a more serious competitor in international tourism

With the launch of Brand USA's first international marketing campaign at Pow Wow, the U.S. is now a more serious competitor in international tourism. For U.S. Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs), it's an opportunity to work with, and leverage the work of, Brand USA in their pursuit of the $1.2 trillion international visitor market. It's time to go global.

Outbound international travel is growing at double-digit rates from many emerging economies (i.e.: China, Brazil, India) and some developed countries (i.e.: Australia, New Zealand and Singapore). International visitor spending was estimated to top $1.2 trillion globally in 2011, with approximately 1 billion international arrivals (source: World Travel and Tourism Council).

With a sluggish U.S. economy and slow recovery in domestic travel, targeting the 60+ million international arrivals is compelling. However, many U.S. destinations face challenges to achieving greater impact and meaningful results in international markets.

Addressing the three most important barriers stand out as a priority for the industry:

International Marketing Budgets 

Many U.S. DMOs struggle to resource international marketing. Small international marketing budgets have been in decline with recent cuts in city and state government revenue. These cuts have been coming at a time when the opportunity for international tourism has been growing. International visitors to the U.S. (including Canada and Mexico) generated more than 15% of all leisure visitor spending in 2010 (international visitor spending totaled $134 billion in 2010 - Source: U.S. Travel).

Therefore, a rough rule of thumb is that at least 15-20% of a DMO's marketing budget should be focused on international markets, more for some destinations, perhaps less for others. Educating management, boards, industry and community leaders on the importance of international travel and ensuring adequate resources is the first challenge for US destinations.

8 out of 10 European travelers used online sources in deciding their destinations

Online Marketing 

For many U.S. DMOs, their international marketing activities are heavily dominated by trade marketing activities. Events like Pow Wow, ITB and World Travel Mart are still well attended and international marketing expenditures focus on supporting wholesalers and travel agents (brochure contributions, etc).

However, this model needs to evolve to match today's international traveler. Research shows that online channels now dominate the sources of information international visitors use in deciding where to go. Travel agents are only of modest importance in the all important destination decision (a distinction from the booking phase where they remain heavily involved).  

For example, PhocusWright's research study Destination Unknown - How U.S. and European Travelers Decide Where to Go (November 2011) highlighted that 8 out of 10 European travelers (from the UK, Germany and France) used online sources in deciding their destinations, with less than 1 out of 10 quoting travel agents as important in this decision.

Despite this shift, many destinations spend less than 10% of their international marketing budgets online and usually have limited international online features, content or advertising geared at these markets. Refining international marketing plans to better balance trade activities and direct to consumer (largely online) marketing programs is an important evolution facing US Destinations.


In order to support this evolution, DMOs will need to evaluate their organizational structures to achieve the best results from this balance of trade and online marketing activities. International marketing efforts can't be seen as a standalone department simply focused on trade activities. Any existing silos need to be broken down. Destinations will need to emphasize training and hiring staff and agency partners with the right international, trade and online marketing knowledge.  


International marketing is increasingly more competitive. National Tourism Offices from Sweden to New Zealand and Iceland to Australia are deploying large budgets, with 40 to 50 percent (or more) of their marketing spend committed online. These destinations still invest in trade activities but usually with a strong direct to consumer (especially online) marketing component.

The arrival of Brand USA and their international marketing activities offers an opportunity for the U.S. to reverse a two-decade decline in its share of international travel. But in order to capitalize on this, U.S. DMOs must resource international marketing adequately and focus on the needs and media channels of the 21st-century traveler.