The article mischaracterized the expertise of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. The organization provides government relations, membership and communications services.
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Mickey Goes to Washington
But a SWAT team of CEOs was no longer enough to meet the demands of what amounted to "the new lobbying." Having a bunch of heavyweight executives certainly helped gain access to lawmakers and their staffs; what politician would turn down a meeting with someone with thousands of employees and millions of dollars to throw around? Money matters. During the 2006 campaign, the lodging, tourism, gambling and recreation industries donated a total of $20.3 million to federal candidates. That would rank hospitality eighth overall behind the perennially big-spending insurance and health professions, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. But for industries that wanted to be thought of as serious players, campaign contributions were just one component of what had to be a much larger venture.
So, in the fall of 2005, Rasulo assembled a team of people to make a serious assault on Washington. They included Disney executive Leslie Goodman, a former spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee; lobbyist Mitchell Rose, a former aide to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska); and Rob Gluck, a young but widely traveled former GOP political operative who now worked for Disney as Rasulo's top adviser on public policy issues.
It is widely accepted at Disney -- if not empirically proved -- that one of every 15 visitors to the United States ends up at a Disney park. Leveraging the power of the federal government to bring more tourists from overseas, therefore, would wind up filling the pockets of the Mouse.
After gaining a consensus among his colleagues at Disney, and talking to people at the Travel Industry Association and the Roundtable, Gluck drafted his boss's "Apollo speech." It was meant to be Rasulo's call to arms. A big lobbying push was needed for a big Ask -- the term lobbyists use to describe what they are pleading for from Congress. Rasulo would not say so publicly, but he told colleagues privately that his Ask would be for at least $200 million a year in advertising funds -- four times what the Commerce Department had previously been directed to spend.
BUT RASULO, GLUCK AND THE OTHERS HAD A BIG PROBLEM. What they wanted, while good for Disney and the rest of the travel industry, contradicted a central tenet of federal policy. While they hungered to have more people visit the United States, the government wanted the opposite -- to keep people out, so terrorists and illegal immigrants couldn't sneak into the country. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, foreigners had to have personal interviews before getting visas to enter the United States, making travel more difficult. Partly as a result of the new visa requirements, the number of inbound visitors fell by 7 percent in 2002 and by 5 percent in 2003, causing thousands of layoffs at airlines and hotels. But most Americans didn't care that much. Hotels and restaurants were still making money. The public was far more worried about keeping undesirables out than making the United States a welcoming destination for foreign tourists. The industry had a second problem, as well. Visits to the United States were beginning to climb again -- on their own, without federal assistance. According to the Commerce Department, the number of international visitors increased 12 percent in 2004. It increased again in 2005, by 7 percent.
The travel industry preferred to emphasize a different, narrower set of statistics. It liked to focus on visitors from overseas rather than all inbound visitors. The reason? Overseas tourists from Europe and Asia, unlike those from Canada and Mexico, tended to stay longer and spend more, two attributes hotels and restaurants coveted. But, unfortunately for travel industry advocates, even the number of visitors from overseas rose 7 percent from 2004 to 2005. Faced with such facts, other executives might have shied away from rushing to the government for help. But not Rasulo. Marketing is marketing, after all. All it takes is finding the right argument and delivering it well. That was especially true in Washington, where incredible victories happened all the time despite the facts -- witness the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.
So the Apollo project got underway, with an executive director, Geoffrey Freeman, hired to coordinate its parts: polling, media relations, economic research, brand management, legislative drafting, advertising, coalition building, Web site construction, event production and, of course, regular old face-to-face lobbying.
Freeman was a buddy of Gluck's. They'd worked together as lobbyists for the health insurance industry, which is among the most adept at mobilizing every weapon in lobbying's arsenal to win a legislative fight. In 2002, Gluck and Freeman had been foot soldiers in the health insurers' battle to defeat the Patients' Bill of Rights, which would have provided Americans with more disclosures about their health plans. They won in part by changing the focus of the debate from the actions of health insurers to unfair lawsuits against physicians.
After working for the American Association of Health Plans, Freeman had become a vice president at APCO Worldwide, a public affairs firm, where he helped to run the pharmaceutical industry's program to give away free prescription drugs -- part of a PR campaign to convince lawmakers that they did not need to impose price controls. Spiky-haired and baby-faced at 31, Freeman's long-term ambition was to take command of a major trade association.
He was part of a new breed that did not exist a couple decades ago -- a K Street career lobbyist. His bio declared him to be "an expert in managing complex issue campaigns and developing innovative outreach strategies to increase support among unlikely allies." That gobbledy-gook meant that Freeman specialized in what lobbying had become, an effort that involved more than talking to members of Congress.
One of Freeman's first tasks was to raise money for the lobbying push; the first-year budget would easily exceed $1 million. Rasulo, Tisch and others persuaded their companies to cough up $100,000 each. Other donors of the same amount included InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott and, later, Anheuser-Busch Cos., owner of several theme parks. Freeman had made a trip to St. Louis to make a personal pitch to then-CEO August Busch III for the assistance.
At first, Freeman's program was called the Partnership for American Travel. But the name didn't sit well with the high-profile executive who was brought in to chair the effort, Stevan D. Porter, president of the Americas division of InterContinental Hotels Group. To make the coalition sound nobler in purpose, Porter and Freeman renamed it the Discover America Partnership. Its agenda was also broadened, because, as Porter candidly disclosed in an interview later, paying for advertising was not really what government was put in place to do.