THE BLOG

Words Matter

02/23/2009 04:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New executives often have an epiphany upon assuming the mantle of leadership - their words matter. A newly appointed manager accustomed to the give and take and camaraderie of casual conversation is often surprised that every utterance is taken seriously and remembered by recipients down the pecking order. Words soon become filtered, measured and their consequences considered.

Barack Obama's first introduction as president to the idea that "words matter" appears to have been harmless. On a snowy January day, newly minted President Obama commented to the press that Washington was wimpy compared to Chicago as the schools were closed (never mind that DC public schools were actually open and it was his daughter's private school that closed). His comments became a national news story. Can you imagine the Obama family discussion when his daughters expressed discomfort that their new school administration had been criticized so visibly by the President of the United States? Bet we don't hear anything bad about his daughters' school again!

But one more recent presidential remark has created a cascade that is damaging our economy. President Obama commented earlier this month at a town hall meeting that companies receiving bailout money should not be attending corporate meetings in Las Vegas. Las Vegas, whose struggling economy depends on business meetings and conventions, responded in force that real business is done in Las Vegas and despite perceived distractions of the location, it is not frivolous. With three of the nation's ten largest convention spaces and more hotel rooms than any other city in the country, Las Vegas is a massive employer of skilled electricians, carpenters, riggers and stagehands for conferences and trade shows. Moreover, the hotel and casino workers, restaurant servers, cooks, bellmen, drivers, and suppliers fuel the economy in one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas.

The trade show we own and produce, the International CES, is just one example of a real business event in Las Vegas that the Administration should be doing everything it can to support against our international competition. The products introduced at CES each year are real innovations that have been shown to contribute to 15 million American high-value jobs. The CES is a vital part of our innovation economy and attracts the world's leaders in technology, content and every connected industry. The CES attracts over 100,000 industry executives, including over 20,000 international attendees at each annual show. This one event pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the American and Las Vegas economy.

As much as I love and value technology and all the miracles it can produce, we are human and still need live interaction. We need to see each other face to face to develop real personal and business relationships. I know President Obama intuitively recognizes this - otherwise he wouldn't have traversed the country in his campaign, nor would he be using the Air Force One to visit states to sign bills and meet with Americans.

It hurts to compare our nation's efforts in this area with those of our international competition. Every developed country in the world works hard to attract tourists and business visitors. Our nation has a hands-off approach and barely participates in international tourism events. What's more, we have harsh visa requirements, an unwelcome and unfriendly environment and appear to have a "not welcome" sign up to international visitors. A Chinese businessman seeking a visa to attend our Las Vegas event has to travel to a U.S. embassy or consul, wait on long lines, pay a fee well over $100 and show his financial statements to get an interview with a U.S. embassy official to get a visa. And then the answer may be a quick no with the businessman being told to go to our competition so he can prove he is not a risk to the United States.

Can you imagine an American going through this to do business in another country? No wonder other countries have most of the world's major trade shows, increasingly attract the best students and are starting to siphon off our industrial customers.

Consider our show's German competition. Each year, Chancellor Angela Merkel not only attends and speaks at the event of our German competitor, but she along with other German government officials reportedly contacts recalcitrant companies to get them to participate.

And while every level of German government coordinates to support their world class events, our government support comes only from valiant efforts of the Commerce Department's overseas posts to talk up our show and from a few knowledgeable embassy officials trying to move along a bureaucratic visa process.

But at the Washington level, it is almost as if we have become the enemy. Both Congress and the White House have "ethics" rules which make it almost impossible for Congressional and Administration officials to help us host the event and welcome important international delegations including top international government officials. What's more, our policymakers in Washington deny themselves the opportunity to see the latest technology innovations. Worse, the newest ethics rules from the Obama Administration appear to disallow any political appointee from taking a morsel at a meal at our event. So as our 20,000 international business visitors and foreign country ministers take the long flight and make the investment to visit our US event, our government has denied itself the ability to welcome them.

I do not think I overstate the importance of President Obama's Las Vegas comments. I am hearing every day from associations and companies that are cancelling conferences and events less for financial reasons and more for "appearance" reasons. The airlines, hotels, convention centers and workers who rely on travel and tourism, are seeing sudden declines and cancellations. While some can be traced to the fragile economy, there is no question that President Obama's words conveyed an unfortunate stereotype that has been amplified into corporate and non-profit boardrooms. We need a Presidential affirmation of the importance of business travel, not only for the Las Vegas economy, but to bolster the sagging travel industry, including convention centers and hotels in every city.

Words matter. I hope President Obama recognizes that business needs face-to-face interaction. Face-to-face interaction requires travel. We need our leader to support this vital part of business and of our economy.

Gary Shapiro is the President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.