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Correction to This Article
The article mischaracterized the expertise of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. The organization provides government relations, membership and communications services.
Cover Story

Mickey Goes to Washington

Lobbyists for America's richest mouse set out to persuade Congress to scare up $200 million to promote U.S. tourist destinations

Leaders ofthe Discover America Partnership lobbying effort -- Jay Rasulo of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Stevan Porter of Inter-Continental Hotels Group and Jonathan Tisch of Loews Hotels -- at an event designed to persuade the federal government to fund a $200 million tourism marketing campaign.
Leaders ofthe Discover America Partnership lobbying effort -- Jay Rasulo of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Stevan Porter of Inter-Continental Hotels Group and Jonathan Tisch of Loews Hotels -- at an event designed to persuade the federal government to fund a $200 million tourism marketing campaign. (Jay L. Clendenin - )
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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Sunday, February 17, 2008; Page W10

JAY RASULO STOOD IN FRONT OF TWO MASSIVE SCREENS, each projecting his balding visage, and did what he loves to do: sell a big idea. The dapper, diminutive chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts implored 500 tourist industry executives to ask the federal government for an expensive favor.

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Speaking in the grand ballroom of the Capital Hilton hotel in downtown Washington on an un-seasonably warm day in January 2006, Rasulo said he believed Congress could be persuaded to fork over a great deal of money for an advertising campaign that would lure millions of foreign tourists to the United States. This "destination marketing" program would enrich his company and others like it, of course. But to make the money flow, he told the luncheon crowd, the industry would have to remake its lobbying capabilities on a man-to-the-moon-like scale.

"We need the equivalent of an Apollo project for destination marketing," Rasulo proclaimed.

More than four years had passed since the attacks of September 11, 2001, had altered the universe for travel. Rasulo, the new chairman of the industry's main lobby, the Travel Industry Association, thought it was time -- past time, in fact -- to win some serious assistance from Uncle Sam. He drove home his point by airing on the theater-size screens a video produced by Disney's sports network, ESPN. Dan Patrick, then a "SportsCenter" anchor, depicted the race for tourist dollars as an Olympic competition. France, Spain and China were winning the race, he said. The United States was lagging behind.

"The U.S. has fallen off the medal stand," Patrick intoned. "You gotta believe they'll get back in the game. The question is, when?"

Rasulo supplied the answer: in roughly a year. Executives from tourism giants such as Marriott, American Express and Hertz buzzed with excitement -- and skepticism. Getting taxpayers to underwrite overseas commercials had been the travel industry's Holy Grail for decades. But the idea had never gotten very far in the councils of government.

Rasulo was undeterred. "One year from today," he boldly predicted, "let's have a successful blueprint for . . . [a] destination-marketing campaign that allows the U.S. to compete in the new world marketplace."

"The good news," he added, "is that it won't be nearly as hard as trying to put a man on the moon."

How wrong he turned out to be.

WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF LOBBYING, they generally envision shadowy operatives and their bought-and-paid-for members of Congress sneaking self-interested giveaways into law. That still happens, of course. Witness the Jack Abramoff scandal. The disgraced lobbyist pleaded guilty in 2006 to arranging all kinds of expensive outings for government officials, including free parties in skyboxes and a golf trip to Scotland on a private jet, in exchange for legislative favors.

But Abramoff was an aberration. Lobbying is much more substantive and out in the open than its ugly caricature. Lobbyists primarily woo lawmakers with facts. Making the case is what effective lobbyists do most and best. They spend the rest of their time persuading lawmakers' constituents to back the same causes, very much in the mode of an electoral campaign. If members of Congress see merit in a position and there is a public outcry in its favor, that's the way they tend to vote. Lobbying these days has a lot of moving parts and is, at its core, more marketing than arm-twisting or favor-swapping. It features not only the lobbyists themselves but ad executives, public relations experts, pollsters, Web site designers and other consultants.

The number of people who make their livings trying to influence the federal government runs into the hundreds of thousands, an enormous figure given the fact that most lobbying is aimed at 535 members of Congress. The exact size of this lobbying army is hard to define, however, because the 30,000 or so people who register to lobby each year do so voluntarily (there is essentially no enforcement of lobbying registration laws), and only those who meet with lawmakers and their staffs directly are required to register at all.

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