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Loews Hotels Chief Jonathan Tisch Warns that America's
 Image is Keeping Foreigners Away
By Douglas Hanks, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Apr. 9, 2007 - Jonathan Tisch presides over the Loews hotel chain, which means he pays particular attention to South Florida's lodging scene. The Loews Miami Beach is the chain's top performer, and Tisch played a central role in convincing the city to award him public land to build the hotel as a convention headquarters in the 1990s.

Also chairman of New York's tourism bureau, Tisch was recently in town criticizing the post-9/11 visa crackdown as hurting the American vacation industry. This country's declining image abroad and increased hassles at its borders are prompting foreigners to vacation elsewhere, he told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Biltmore in Coral Gables.

It's a trend deeply felt in South Florida, particularly in Miami-Dade County. Where foreign tourists made up 51 percent of the county's tourism market in 2000, that share dropped to 46 percent last year. And the destination is still waiting to return to pre-9/11 level of 5.6 million foreign tourists.

Hurricanes continue to vex the Loews, too. Tisch said conferences avoided the fall booking season there last year, still spooked by the barrage Florida took in 2004 and 2005. And while 2007 looks strong overall for the hotel, he said groups are still leery of booking during storm season.

Tisch was also in town pitching his second book: Chocolates on the Pillow Aren't Enough, Reinventing the Customer Experience. Filled with Wall Street tales of companies that have gotten customer service right (Target, which flattened its prescription bottles to make labels easier to read) and wrong (Brooks Brothers for its misguided attempt to conduct suit fittings with intrusive full-body scanners).

After his chamber speech, Tisch sat down in the Biltmore's lobby for a quick chat with Business Monday. He was eager to tout the Loews, reluctant to mention the war, and sounding very upbeat about South Florida's hotel industry. When he mentions the Super Bowl, remember that Tisch's family also owns half of the New York Giants.

Q: Congratulations on your new book. What you were talking about today, in terms of the international numbers, they're not looking good here -- but they're getting a little better. Is this all visa issues?

A: A lot of it is visa issues. But also a lot of it is the negative impression that our country now suffers from overseas. That makes it difficult for America, Americans and American brands. It presents enormous challenges. And when you meld that together with the visa issues, what happens is many times the traveler just says: "It's too difficult to get into Fortress America. I'm not coming. I'm going to take my business elsewhere."

Q: When you say our image abroad, are you referring to the war?

A: It's a whole host of reasons that our image suffers overseas. You see that through a lot of the challenges we face as a country. What's happening is a lot of the businesses are taking their meetings overseas. We're also having tremendous challenges from countries that are building enormous convention centers [including Dubai].

They know how difficult it is to get into this country. They're going to try to build a tourism infrastructure to compete with us.

Q: Back to the image issue, are you talking about foreign policy creating these problems?

A: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

(Can you give me an example?) It cuts across a lot of different issues.

(Including the war?) It includes a lot of different issues.

(Why won't you say the war?) I don't want to take the war out of context. Americans just are not viewed -- America is not viewed as a place that people want to come anymore. They're just not satisfied by us.

Q: The Smith Travel numbers show demand seems to be dropping in this market. Occupancy is down as rates go up. Are you seeing that type of situation with the Loews Miami Beach?

A: Not really. Because our occupancy continues to go up.

Business for '07 looks good and business for '08 looks good. And we know there's more competition. Look at the Fontainebleau, which will come online with 1,000 new rooms. We understand we exist in a very competitive environment.

We know there are also some issues with price gouging during big events [including Super Bowl XLI]. That's not something we participate in.

I'm proud of the fact that during these big weekends we raise prices in a respectful manner to the traveler. I know there are some questions in Miami and Miami Beach about the rates getting high. But it's also a free-market system. And rates usually respond to occupancy.

If you look at the kind of events the city attracts, Art Basel, Super Bowl -- which seems to be on a fairly-permanent rotation -- the city has done a superb job of making Miami relevant and attractive on many many weekends during the year and many times during the week.

Q: Loews Miami Beach is your top hotel. And 2006 was the first year in two years when no hurricanes hit Florida. Did you have a hurricane effect at the Loews Miami Beach in 2006?

A: You're seeing that across the board in destinations that have to deal with hurricane seasons. There is definitely a drop off in terms of businesses and associations wanting to book during hurricane season. But fortunately we have been able to replace that business. A lot of times it is with short-term transient business that doesn't have the long lead times.

And we understand it as an issue. If you're a meeting planner, if you're a head of a company, these trips are expensive. You don't want to have to plan and then cancel and then rearrange everybody's schedule. It's a real issue.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Miami Herald

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