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RISMEDIA, March 21, 2009-(MCT)-The travails of the airline industry, brought on by the economic woes affecting us all, have received much of our attention recently. But it’s not the only part of the travel business that’s suffering.

Now, urged by travel-industry leaders, the White House has stepped in to recommend that Americans hit the road.

In droves, companies and other organizations have been canceling meetings, sending fewer salespeople out on the road, hosting fewer customer dinners, and withdrawing plans for reward trips to resorts for their best employees. U.S. hotel occupancy in the first quarter is likely to slip below 60%, a money-losing level for most lodgings.

The retreat from travel means a vast number of empty hotel ballrooms, conference centers, and restaurants, which in turn is resulting in layoffs for hundreds of thousands of workers in the hospitality business.

The biggest players in the travel business have teamed up to try to stop the bleeding, which they say has been exacerbated by politicians and the media bashing the lavish spending of companies that have received bailout funds.

Given the near-depression atmosphere in the country, it’s hard to know how much travel has stopped because of the economy in general, and how much because of political rhetoric and news reports about a few bad actors. But there’s no doubt that it’s easy to scare businesspeople into hunkering down right now.

In Philadelphia, no large meetings or conventions already scheduled have been canceled, but “people are nervous,” said Jack Ferguson, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Instead of going to a hotel for a meeting, they’re saying, ‘We’ll just do it in our boardroom and roll in lunch on a cart.’ The true victims as the hospitality industry loses money are the hourly employees, the desk clerks, the waitresses, housekeepers, janitors, and bellmen.”

Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, said the legislators’ attack on the banks’ spending had “paralyzed the marketplace” by creating the impression that all spending on business travel was wasteful. “Meetings and events have real value,” he said.

The travel association and other industry groups started a “Meetings Mean Business” campaign that pushes back against what they called the “political demonization of business meetings and events.”

The groups emphasized that they want financial institutions that have received aid held to a higher standard than other private-sector companies are, with the recipients reporting how they are spending the public’s money.

Freeman added that the industry “couldn’t be any more pleased” with the White House’s support overall for the travel business, including legislation pending in Congress setting up a fund to promote the country as a place that welcomes foreign visitors.

© 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.