On February 10, 1965, a nine member coalition of state travel directors from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia met by directive from the Southern Governors Association to exchange information about travel operations and promotions of each state. During this first meeting, the Governors agreed to sponsor a joint advertising program campaign in “Holiday” Magazine. The ads spotlighted a member state each month while promoting the south as a vacation region. A call-to-action-mail-in-coupon tracked 1,670 readers requesting information. Based on the success of the campaign, at the 34th Annual Southern Governors Association meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, the Southern Travel Directors Council (STDC) was formed when eleven (11) Governors signed a resolution to promote, stimulate, foster and encourage travel to and within the region. Discussions focused on budgets, sharing of staff job descriptions for new welcome centers in Georgia and Florida, joint advertising and mutual efforts towards legislative support for a new film commissions.

The 1970s - Expansion

The Southern Travel Directors Council incorporated on June 18, 1971 and later that year adopted annual dues of $15,000 per state, with the travel directors serving on the governing board. The Travel South USA tagline was developed for advertising and promotion and continues to be the branding reference and current name of the organization. Paul Cook, the first Executive Director, was hired and the organization moved into Gaslight Towers office building at 234 Peachtree NE, Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Cook served from 1971 to 1974.

The mid to late 1970s brought focus to the organization as it expanded to promote Travel South USA products. Executive Directors Bill Barnes (1974-1978) and Mike Sorka (1978-1982) directed campaign efforts in North America. This included a mission to Mexico, presence at the Canadian National Exhibition, the Miss Travel South USA pageant, promotional vacation giveaways on game shows and public service announcements. In the early 80’s stagnant budget and gas shortages curtailed the organization’s outreach in foreign markets and started discussions about a revenue generating event.

In 1974 Dr. Lewis Copeland of the University of Tennessee was retained by STDC to compile economic analysis for the region and the organization produced its first Southern Travel Economic Analysis and Annual Report. 2000 copies were distributed to members, legislators and educational institutions. The eleven southern states’ share of business represented $31 billion, 20% of the $156 billion travel service business in the nation. The traveling public was served by 214,940 places of business in the 11-state southern region, employing 1.4 million paid workers. Roughly one in five firms of private commerce was catering to the traveling public. 

During the 70’s, the group worked to expand distribution of “The South” film through 1,500 Paramount theatres and 25 TV network markets; new advertising special sections in Modern Bride, House & Garden and Welcome to the USA for the European market were developed. A sales guide for wholesale tour operators and retail travel agents was distributed at the DATO Pow Wow. TSUSA also conducted one day seminars for Canadian travel agents and travel writers during the CNE in Toronto.  In 1979, Travel South USA first exhibited at World Travel Mart in London.

The 1980s - Domestic Showcase is Started

In 1982, a new Executive Director, Glenn Couvillon (1982 – 2003), formerly of the Florida Division of Travel & Tourism, was hired and the offices moved to the Lenox Towers at 3400 Peachtree Rd., NE, Atlanta, Georgia. One of the first projects for the new staff was to publish a newsletter targeting travel industry, tour operators and journalists, providing news and events. UPDATE, a high-quality, glossy 11x17 news publications was later changed to The Southern View and in the late 90s morphed into Get Wild About the South, a satin newsletter/ fax broadcast communications piece.

In 1983, the first Travel South Showcase kicked off in Tampa, Florida. The marketplace was designed to connect domestic and international travel buyers with southern suppliers. The goal was to provide the easiest, most efficient way to book business in the 11 Southern states. The turnout was robust with about 35 tour operators and 65 tourism suppliers meeting in one-on-one appointments. 

The same year during the 1983 Pow Wow, Bill Hardman, Sr., former Georgia Travel Director, called upon private sector industry leaders to form Southeast Tourism Society (STS); he was named Acting Director during their first meeting in Atlanta and Executive Director in early 1984.  Travel South USA was a founding member and all the TSUSA Board members were included on the STS Board. The first project of this newly formed group was organizing the Southeast Hoedown in Washington, D.C. to draw attention to National Tourism Week. Supported by the state tourism offices along with the private sector, a large tent on the National Mall was filled with southern food and entertainment to host legislators and staff about issues in southern tourism. 

The initiatives of the mid 80s concentrated on producing Travel South Showcase and developing stronger programming for the international outreach. TSUSA developed international marketing educational seminars and exhibited at Pow Wow, WTM, ITB and other international trade shows.  In 1989, the organization celebrated its 20th anniversary and they were recognized at World Travel Mart in London to commemorate 10 years of support and sponsorship.

The 1990s - The Beginning of International Outreach

Throughout the 1990’s, the primary focus was international promotional campaigns, trade shows and sales missions in the United Kingdom and Western Europe. Buoyed by Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines expanding service from the Far East to the South, TSUSA developed plans to market in Japan. “What’s Up Down South” marketplace was created to reach out to the domestic group leader market.

In 1994, a joint promotion including TSUSA, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Family Mart, and Westin Hotels & Resorts won a Travel Industry Association of America Award of Excellence in Travel and Tourism Promotions. State tourism representatives along with private sector partners participated in “Get Wild About the South” sales missions to New York and Los Angeles focused on Receptive Tour Operators.

In 1998, West Virginia joined the organization as the 12th state. TSUSA received a US Department of Commerce grant to develop a marketing campaign in Brazil.  STS also moved into jointly lease space with TSUSA. The two organizations also produced an “International Marketing & Communication conference” in January 1998.  

The 2000s - Challenges & Successes

Moving into the new millennium, the 2001 Showcase in New Orleans, Louisiana had the largest attendance and was the most financially successful marketplace in the history of the program. Four TSUSA Board members were appointed to meet with STS Representatives to discuss merging the two organizations. TSUSA and STS met in Atlanta in January 2002 to discuss a merger and while no consensus was reached, the organizations agreed it would establish better communication and work on projects together where mutually beneficial. The same year, three cities, and former TSUSA employees made plans to launch the Rhythms of the South marketplace owned by Atlanta CVB, Nashville CVB, New Orleans CVB and supported by Delta Airlines. The marketplace is designed exclusively for international travel buyers and journalists to meet with southern suppliers (except Florida – later amended to allow the Panhandle of Florida to participate). 

Internal challenges from 2001 to 2003 resulted in the Board initiating a search for a new Executive Director. Eight candidates were selected to interview in December 2003. In March 2004, they hired Elizabeth “Liz” Bittner and at the annual meeting convened for a three day strategy meeting to set the course into the next era. The Board faced many challenges including financial shortfalls, contractual commitments, industry discontent with programs, and re-evaluating international marketing. After more than 10 years, TSUSA decided to close the marketing office in Japan. They regrouped to shore up the financial and organizational strength needed to be the representative leadership of the south; revitalize Showcase as a destination marketing program; and provide high return marketing efforts targeting travel trade as well as consumers, in North America markets as well overseas.

In late September 2005, just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina and Rita, a 70+ person Sales Mission took to the streets of Toronto, Canada. The Mission included CAA training seminars, tour operator sales calls, media luncheon, TV and radio interviews, 1.2 million newspaper inserts, reception at the Counsel General residence and consumer trade show, “The South on the Square” at BCE Place in Toronto. The Honorable David Wilkens, US Ambassador Canada, was keynote at the opening ceremony. This campaign also launched www.TravelSouthUSA.com for consumer marketing, while www.TravelSouthUSA.org remained the organization’s internal communication vehicle for the southern travel trade.  

In January, 2007, an 80+ committee of state tourism professionals in marketing, sales, public relations and research met at the recently re-opened Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Mississippi, the first official meeting for the hotel, since the devastating hurricanes. Consensus of the group included a recommendation that TSUSA 3-year plan to deliver state leadership allow as well as include private sector support. The Rhythms of the South Southern Marketplace went on hiatus in 2008 to meet with the airlines and industry associations to expand the marketplace to encompass the new global economy.

The 2010s - Moving Forward

Throughout the 2009-2011 financial recession, Travel South USA delivered strong results, year over year, managing an ever growing program of work. Visit Florida decided to leave  the organization in 2010, citing financial reasons. Bouyed In February 2011, TSUSA produced the 29th annual Travel South Showcase in Atlanta with 662 total delegates including 126 domestic and international operators and 49 domestic and international media. The growing international delegates presented a challenge, as it was difficult provide high quality meetings for these international delegates they expected, due to the southern supplier delegates only focused on domestic group business.
In the spirit of cooperation, the Travel South USA Board reached out to partner with the Rhythms of the South Alliance (Atlanta CVB, Nashville CVB and New Orleans CVB) to work together to launch a new marketplace.  The two groups quickly agreed and the first three Travel South USA International Showcases were born in 2012, 2013, and 2014 in the three respective cities.  Based on the phenomenal success of these marketplaces, TSUSA and ROTS have agreed to continue the partnership through 2020.  Charlotte hosted International Showcase in 2015, Atlanta will host International Showcase in 2016, and then move to Charleston, South Carolina in 2017, return to Nashville in 2018, and revisit New Orleans in 2020.

Domestic Showcase (as it is now called) also has continued to be the flagship program for the organization, focusing on balancing attendance with great industry ratios for appointments, strong participation in tour operator and journalist FAMs, and high satisfaction scores.

In 2013, the Board invited Missouri Tourism to join and the invitation was accepted. Missouri is part of the Southern Governors’ Association, and has strong ties to the Americana Music, Food and Culture that the South is known for. 

Travel South USA is proud of its’ ability to adapt and change to provide top quality value for the state tourism offices, including successful Ultimate Ad programming, Global Partner Programming, Digital Marketing Campaigns and Social Media and a highly refined program of work to gain Earned Media. The organization is recognized a leader in regional marketing through its work with Brand USA.  Travel South USA is currently working with the UNESCO World Heritage organization to have 14 civil rights sites be accredited as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The future remains bright for the oldest, largest and strongest regional destination marketing organization in the country. We provide a foundation to positively position tourism as a vital and dynamic element in the region’s economic development. Tourism ranks throughout the region as one of the top three industries, behind manufacturing and agriculture, and is responsible for $133 billion in spending by visitors, generating 1.4 million direct jobs, $30 billion in worker paychecks, and almost $16 billion in state and local taxes.