Executive Director, Arizona Tourism Alliance
Debbie Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Tourism Alliance, is a major force in the Valley and state’s tourism and hospitality industry. She also serves as president and CEO of the Arizona Hotel & Lodging Association and the Valley Hotel and Resort Association. Johnson also represents the tourism industry by serving with the following organizations: American Hotel & Lodging Association; Arizona Film and Television Commission; the Governor’s Tourism Advisory Council; International Society of Hotel Association Executives; Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority; Civic Plaza Task Force; and the Phoenix Tourism and Hospitality Advisory Board. In 2003, she was named the Arizona Tourism Champion of the Year at the Arizona Governor’s Conference on Tourism, and in 2006, she was given the Phoenix Visitor Industry Champion Award by the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau.
How badly did the recession affect the state’s tourism and hospitality industry, and could it have been worse?
The tourism industry was particularly hard hit in 2009 by several factors, including the recession, the negative perception of travel and meetings, the fear of the H1N1 virus, and some misplaced political rhetoric. While our industry suffered unprecedented occupancy and revenue losses, I’m sure it could have been worse, although I shudder to think of what that would have meant to so many of our residents who rely on tourism for their livelihoods.
What we learned this year was the importance of the meetings industry to our state. Group and business travel accounts for more than 70 percent of revenue for most of our larger properties, and when we saw mass cancellations in that market due to fear of negative media coverage and public perceptions, it resulted in tens of millions of dollars missing from our state, city and county budgets. We’re still feeling those effects today as the Legislature grapples with how to deal with the deficit because of less than expected tax revenues.
What do you foresee for 2010?
We’re hearing mixed messaging as far as what the tourism industry can expect in 2010. While we anticipate having another challenging year, we are optimistic that the worst is behind us, and feel that we’ll make some inroads toward recovery.
What initiatives is the Arizona Tourism Alliance taking to help strengthen the state’s tourism and hospitality industry?
The Arizona Tourism Alliance’s most important roles are to advocate, educate and unite our industry. Bringing the industry together through annual events and monthly updates is key to keeping our members engaged and informed, and educating elected officials on the value of tourism revenues is an ongoing process that requires constant attention. With the current crisis that our state budget is in, tourism’s return on investment ($8 returned to the state budget for every $1 spent on tourism marketing) provides a positive and short-term solution toward lowering our deficit; so it’s critical for us to provide that positive message.
You are involved with several other tourism and hospitality organizations here in the Valley. How have all of those groups been working together to ride out the recession and prepare for recovery?
The Arizona Tourism Alliance, Arizona Hotel & Lodging Association, Valley Hotel & Resort Association and Southern Arizona Lodging and Resort Association have always been strong partners, but 2009 was the year that truly brought our industry and all of our advocacy organizations together. With all challenges come opportunities, and the bright spot of 2009 was that it united our members in the resolve that we’re all in this together. We have emerged from this crisis as a stronger and more resilient industry. And the theory that a vibrant Arizona tourism industry equals a healthy Arizona economy is undeniable.