Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance Takes a Stand as Staggering U.S. Visa Delays Deter International Event Delegates 

November 1, 2022

According to new analysis released on Oct. 6 by U.S. Travel Association economists, the U.S. Department of State’s low prioritization of visitor visa processing is severely hindering the U.S. economic recovery, preventing an estimated 6.6 million potential visitors from traveling to the U.S. in 2023 at a loss of $11.6 billion in projected spending.

Wait times for visitor visa interviews now exceed 400 days for first-time applicants from top source markets, a huge deterrent that is sending millions of potential visitors – including business event delegates—and billions in traveler spending to other nations, according to U.S.Travel President and CEO Geoff Freeman.

“Excessive visa delays are essentially a travel ban—no one is going to wait 1-2 years to interview with a U.S. government official to gain permission to visit the United States,” Freeman said. “Our new research shows that millions of potential visitors will simply choose other destinations—destinations that effectively compete for their business.” 

U.S. Travel has called on the State Department to make first-time visitor visa processing an economic priority and has shared several policy recommendations with the agency to help resolve this problem. Additionally, the organization’s urgent calls for a solution were echoed by more than 60 bipartisan members of Congress in a recent letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

As the unified advocacy voice of the face-to-face business events industry, the Exhibitions & Conferences Alliance (ECA) isn’t sitting idly by as this urgent issue remains unresolved. Composed of 10 leading industry associations, ECA works at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that policymakers understand and support the critical role that the business events industry has on economic development, job creation, community impact and support for small businesses nationwide. 

According to Tommy Goodwin, vice president of the ECA, the organization has been calling on the Biden Administration and the State Department to address the unacceptable delays that international attendees and exhibitors ­face in obtaining a visa to come to the U.S. for exhibitions and conferencesa glaring hindrance preventing the industry from returning to pre-pandemic economic levels.

TSNN had a chance to sit down with Goodwin to learn more about the current status of this pressing problem, how it’s impacting the event industry’s post-pandemic recovery and what business event professionals can do to support this crucial effort.

What is the current state of U.S. visitor visa wait times and how is it impacting the nation’s trade show and events industry? How did we get here exactly?

At this time, 40 countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which is administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in consultation with the State Department. The VWP allows citizens of those countries to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa.  

For the top non-VWP countries (e.g., Mexico, Brazil, India), first-time applicants for B-1 and B-2 visitors visas currently face average interview wait times of more than 400 days, with the wait at some embassies and consulates exceeding two years. This is keeping countless exhibitors and attendees from coming back to business events in the U.S. at a time when the industry is still down 25.5% from 2019 levels, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. 

What has been stopping the U.S. State Department from shortening these wait times, and what needs to happen to fix this issue?

While the State Department has previously struggled with visa interview and processing delays at times, the size and scope of the current problem is unprecedented. While U.S. embassies and consulates around the world understandably stopped processing non-emergency visas during the height of the pandemic in 2020, many have been far too slow to restore capacity to pre-pandemic levels. This is hurting the economy, costing the U.S. billions of dollars in visitor spending and signaling to the world that the U.S. is closed for business.

In September, 55 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary Antony Blinken calling on the State Department to take five steps to restore and improve visa processing: 

  1. Prioritize resources to key markets including Mexico, Brazil and India.
  2. Lower wait times to 10-15 days in the top countries for inbound U.S. visitors. 
  3. Develop a videoconference interview pilot program for low-risk visa applicants.
  4. Allow certain low-risk visa holders in the U.S. to renew without leaving the country first.
  5. Conduct group appointments for visa applicants looking to come to the U.S. for large exhibitions, conferences, meetings and events.

ECA wholeheartedly supports these recommendations, which will prioritize the reduction of visa interview and processing wait times without jeopardizing national security.

How is the ECA advocating for the industry when it comes to this issue, and what recent steps has it taken to inspire action from lawmakers on Capitol Hill? 

Tommy Goodwin, ECA

The restoration of visa interview and processing capacity to pre-pandemic levels remains a top priority for ECA and the industry. As part of ECA’s ongoing advocacy work in Washington, D.C., we continue to meet with members of Congress and Biden Administration officials urging them to make reducing visa interview wait times a priority. 

In addition, two members of the House of Representatives recently introduced the bipartisan Visitor Visa Wait Time Reduction Act, the first stand-alone piece of legislation that endeavors to address the extreme wait times for visitor visa appointments at U.S. diplomatic posts around the world. While the current challenges are largely ones of administrative capacity and prioritization, ECA supports the Visitor Visa Wait Time Reduction Act as well as various Congressional oversight efforts to spur much-needed and urgent action by the State Department.  

What are the next steps, and when do you believe we will see movement on this issue?

Recently, the U.S. Travel Association called on the Biden Administration and State Department to set clear timelines and goals to restore efficient visa processing including: 

  • Lowering interview wait times for visitor visas to 21 days in Brazil, India and Mexico by April 2023.
  • By Sept. 30, 2023, reinstating the Obama-era executive order to process 80% of visas worldwide within 21 days.

ECA supports those goals and echoes further calls for Congress to pass legislation that makes visa processing more modern and efficient.

What are some action steps event professionals can take to get behind this effort?

ECA continues to collect the stories of face-to-face business event organizers to share with policymakers that highlight the impact that failing to welcome back exhibitors and attendees has on our industry’s recovery. Additionally, along with our ongoing lobbying on this issue, ECA anticipates that visa interview wait times will be one of our top priorities for our grassroots advocacy efforts in 2023, including our annual ECA Legislative Action Day

To learn more about the ECA’s advocacy efforts and resources and how to get involved, go here.

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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.