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In this exclusive interview, Traveltalk chats to Scott Beck, President and CEO of San Francisco Travel Association, and Julie Coker, President and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, about their plans to attract more Aussie visitors.

Q: How important is the Australian market to San Francisco?

SB:  Long haul markets in general are very important but especially one that is this familiar and likes to travel as much as Australians do. That’s a lethal combination. We’re predicting about 175,000 Australians visiting this year and that’s a significant number.

Q: I believe we’re about eighth on the table of overseas visitors. Can we go higher?

SB: That’s why we’re here. We have plans and strategies and we’re optimistic about it. The ability for the West Coast of the U.S. to be the dominant area for receiving Aussie visitors is a very competitive advantage that we are going to leverage.

Scott Beck, President and CEO of San Francisco Travel Association


Q: Can you tell us how you’ll be doing that?

SB: We’ll be reminding people that travel is about being transformed. It’s not always a fly and flop. Travel can also be something that challenges you and that’s the message we’ll be delivering. Plus, it’s really easy to get here.

Q: Julie, how has the Aussie market rebounded in San Diego?

JC: Australia was one of our top five markets pre-COVID and they definitely have returned. We had about 48,000 Australian visitors last year – at our high watermark it was 70,000 – so definitely a way to go but we’re pleased at the direction we’re heading.

We still believe that the Australian market won’t be fully recovered in San Diego until 2025. We also know that we’re very reliant on the airlift that happens in San Francisco as well as LA. It’s not all ponies and unicorns but what we’re seeing right now is a positive outlook.

Q: How will you encourage Aussies to keep visiting?

JC: We know that Australians stay in our destination longer and they spend more so that is definitely a priority for us.

So, we’re leaning into all of the things that make San Diego attractive: the natural beauty, the beach in an urban environment, hiking, biking, surfing, wellness and family getaways. We really do have something for everybody.

Q: And I believe some very exciting news just in?

JC: I heard this morning that pandas are coming to San Diego Zoo and we’re really excited about that. Our zoo is world-class and they work to ensure conservation across the world, so we’re hoping to receive pandas later this year.

Q: Why do Aussies love coming to America?

JC: We have made a commitment to having folks experience the United States and our culture. It’s also a great cultural exchange: you learn from us and we learn from you when you come to visit.

The United States remains an aspirational destination for overseas visitors and we don’t take that lightly. As difficult as COVID was on the United States, I think each of the destinations in California really took the time to evaluate the assets that we have.

We’ve come out of COVID stronger and we’re here with a more welcoming, inclusive message and that’ll continue moving forward. We’ve always been a welcoming state but we’ve taken that to another level coming out of COVID.

Julie Coker, President and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority


Q: Are travel agents still important to you both?

JC: During COVID we really took the time to evaluate and enhance our travel agent education program. Our online training really got the ultimate facelift.

Travel agents are definitely still relevant; our job is to make sure that they’re educated and that our training programs are as immersive and inspiring as they can be.

SB: I don’t think travel got any less complicated after the pandemic. I would say on some level it actually got more complicated. I think anyone that has a trusted resource that can make that easier is going to travel more, travel longer and spend more money.

I think they’ve actually come out of the pandemic as a stronger part of the travel ecosystem than they were before.

What I’m really excited about for the future and why I think the Australian market is so important is that there’s a level of bespoke-ness that’s very intentional in the way people are travelling now and that’s infinitely more deliverable with a travel agent than it is searching online.

Q: Are we likely to see you both in Australia more often going forward?

JC: This is an investment, this isn’t just a 2024 strategy, more like a five-year strategy. We see potential here and as with any market where we see consistent potential then we want to invest in it.

SB: It’s been fun to be this sponge over the past six or seven days and really understand the market better. As a destination there’s a huge opportunity for us here. The opportunity to position San Francisco as a gateway to our country is enormous and I think that’s going to be the strategy that will bring us here much more often.

Panda images courtesy San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.