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When travel executives attack

From canceled conferences to grounded business jets, there’s no escaping the fact that much of the damage in the travel industry has been self-inflicted.

Oh, puh-leeze!

Oscar Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, is mad at President Barack Obama for singling out his city as a destination for junkets and other potentially dubious business trips.

James Tisch, CEO of Loews Corp., says Congress is “killing the resort hotel business” as companies cancel meetings and conferences (even legitimate ones) to avoid any whiff of extravagance that may trigger the government’s ire.

And Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, is angry at the government and the media for stereotyping his industry and “discouraging and disparaging the use of general aviation for business purposes.”

Anybody sensing a pattern here? Seems that when the going gets tough, the fingers start pointing.

I realize, of course, that the aforementioned gentlemen are advocates whose tasks include defending their constituents’ contributions to the world of travel. And considering that I'm essentially a travel advocate myself (as a travel writer, I obviously have a vested interest in the industry's health), I can certainly commiserate. Believe me, when your work is based on finding newsworthy stories, an industry in retreat is not a positive development.

Yet it really bugs me when industry spokespeople blame the messengers instead of addressing the underlying problems that got them in the messes they’re in. From canceled conferences to grounded business jets, there’s no escaping the fact that much of the damage has been self-inflicted.

Take Las Vegas. The last time I was there, back in October 2005, I was stunned by the number of construction projects underway. It seemed like every time I turned a corner, I was confronted with a fresh hole in the ground, a towering lattice of I-beams or a condo-project billboard advertising the good life for $450,000 and up. All I could think was: Who the heck is buying these places? Could there really be that many NBA stars and celebutantes looking for a home away from home?

I don’t mean to pick on Vegas. I’ve seen equally frenetic construction in Miami, New York City and Seattle, but it’s obvious that Sin City’s troubles predate the president’s remarks. (While speaking on corporate executives seeking bailout funds, the president said, among other things, “You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime.”)

Naturally, Mayor Goodman didn’t appreciate the reference and wrote a letter to the president decrying the implication that “any [business] trip to Las Vegas is a junket.” Agreed, although you don’t see NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell penning a letter and complaining about Obama dissing the big game.

Resort hotels feeling the chill
I sense a similar bit of misdirection in Tisch’s statement about Congress and the resort hotel business.” The Loews CEO is referring, of course, to the idea that companies are cutting back on their meetings, conferences and incentive-oriented travel because the government has targeted businesses that have taken taxpayer money and then splurged on extravagant perks, including travel.

It’s the so-called “AIG effect” (named for the insurance company that made headlines last fall for spending $440,000 on a lavish spa retreat after receiving $85 billion in federal bailout funds). Faced with a rising tide of public outrage, both Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley recently canceled employee-incentive trips, and even companies that haven’t engaged in any questionable behavior are thinking twice about their travel plans.

Is that having a chilling effect on the resort hotel business? I’m sure it is. Is it Congress’ fault? I don’t see how. Companies that have abused the public trust deserve to be outed, and in the current economic climate, companies that have done nothing wrong should be thinking long and hard about their travel plans. The vast majority already do, and if they’ve determined that scaling back is the right response right now, who can blame them?

Flying high without a clue
Which brings us to corporate jets. Despite Bolen’s complaint, it’s not the government and media that have damaged business aviation’s reputation — it’s the parade of corporate executives who have shown incredibly bad judgment regarding their private-jet travel plans (see Citicorp, Starbucks and the Big Three Detroit automakers, among others). Used judiciously, a corporate jet is an undeniably valuable business tool. Abused, it should come as no surprise that the industry has gotten a big black eye.

But again, such wounds have been mostly self-inflicted, and defensive posturing is only going to give credence to the idea that major players in the travel industry still don’t get it. It’s a perception problem, they insist, or one of appearances, which, when you think about it, is essentially the PR equivalent of “But honey, it’s not what it looks like.”

Well, maybe not, but in my experience, perception is often a good indicator of reality. What you see usually is what you get, and if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you should probably be prepared for a whole bunch of duck poop. And we certainly don’t need any more of that.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, .