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16 min

ESTO 2024 Sneak Peek with Aimee Misako Gabel, Angie Briggs, and Jody Raida

ESTO is August 11-13 in Columbus, Ohio, and this year's theme is "Ignite Your Spark." Mark is joined by Aimee Misako Gabel and Angie Briggs for a first look at this year's convention, advice for first-time attendees, and tips for maximizing your stay. We also hear from Jody Raida about the upcoming GoUSA TV Storytelling Awards and how destinations can still participate before the deadline to enter.

Aimee Misako Gabel is Senior Vice President for Events and Education at U.S. Travel Association. Angie Briggs is Vice President of Destination Engagement at U.S. Travel Association. Jody Raida is a Content Consultant for GoUSA TV.

"We know that our industry colleagues are some of the hardest-working, and we want to be able to provide to them the best in business takeaways and opportunities to meet with each other and be energized from the learning, and really empowered to find different solutions."

Intro: This is Brand USA Talks Travel, elevating the conversation about international travel to the United States. Here's your host, Mark Lapidus.

Mark Lapidus [0:09]: Aimee, how have your first few months at U.S. Travel been, and what's surprised you so far the most?

Aimee Misako Gabel [0:14]: Mark, thank you, and thank you so much for having me back. I have loved my time so far, but it's been lightning speed, from producing a record-breaking IPW to getting to know our amazing members to working with our talented staff to getting ready for our July Summit... that show coming up in August... We've just been running. I've been running, and I love it. I love the energy of this industry the most. The energy is always there and always positive.

Mark Lapidus [0:39]: I'm glad you're having fun already. And Angie, I understand you've visited 49 states and over 35 countries. How many miles have you logged?

Angie Briggs [0:47]: Well, I don't know who you've been talking to, but it is a true story. I don't know, I don't keep up with my mileage as much, but I do have quite the passion for this industry. I've been in it for 30 years, and I travel a lot, both personally and professionally. So it's definitely my greatest love.

Mark Lapidus [1:03]: I am so pleased to welcome back Aimee Misako Gabel, U.S. Travel Association's Senior VP for Events and Education. Also joining us is Angie Briggs, U.S. Travel Association's Vice President of Destination Engagement. Welcome, Angie, to Brand USA Talks Travel.

Angie Briggs [1:18]: I'm excited to be here today. Thanks for having us.

Mark Lapidus [1:20]: My pleasure. We will have a third wheel joining us toward the end of this podcast, who I will introduce later. But we're here mainly today to talk about ESTO. First, I'd like to hear a little bit about your the past, Aimee, because the past always informs the future. I'm always interested in hearing success stories, as I think the lessons learned can help us in the travel industry around the United States. You grew RE+ to a top 50 trade show, so what are some of the key best practices you utilized to drive growth for the event?

Aimee Misako Gabel [1:48]: It was an exciting time. My decade in renewable energy taught me so many great lessons. And like travel, renewables were an evolving industry, and it was critical for us to keep our eye on the future. One of the best practices is - just try it. We would beta test new markets in small doses through our education program. If we saw a segment or an opportunity, something that could grow, we would test it in one space. There, it was in their education program. We would, for example, we saw energy storage market really expanding. In 2013, we had two sessions. By the time I left in '23, it was half of our program in Trade Show. There were a lot of opportunities for us to just test things and grow them, test them and grow them - or, you know, not. I think the other thing that really helped find success is finding and leveraging great partners. I've already found that so much in the travel industry. We were able to, in renewables, expand our reach so much faster, because we found clever partners. For example, there was a nonprofit who opened their doors to young professionals who were eager to make a difference in the world. There was an international partner who helped us set up our first international show. Those partnerships really helped us hit the ground running so much faster. In the travel industry, there's opportunity for us to leverage those kinds of partnerships to our success, too.

Mark Lapidus [3:03]: Angie, my spies inside U.S. Travel tell me the collaboration is one of your key strengths. How does ESTO facilitate collaboration among attendees?

Angie Briggs [3:13]: I've been going to ESTO right at 20 years, and I would point to that as one of the largest opportunities to collaborate. I think it's because the content is driven by the industry. We have an ESTO planning committee that's very engaged, involved. They bring us great ideas, they help us build out the speakers for the concurrent sessions. It's just the way it's formed is collaborative, which sets the whole tone for the conference. It's a great balance of first-timers and veterans, and having the dichotomy of that and everything in between just allows for so much collaboration with ideas and experiences and how to get your footing in this industry if you're new.

Mark Lapidus [3:51]: This year's ESTO will be in Columbus, Ohio, from August 11th to the 13th. Registration is now open. Aimee, how's it going so far?

Aimee Misako Gabel [3:59]: Great. We got a bit of a delayed start as I got up to speed, and this will be my first ESTO. But like Angie mentioned, the planning committee has been terrific. The content is coming together, top of the class, really excited about being able to showcase Columbus. I think it'll be a number of people's first time there.

Mark Lapidus [4:15]: Is it likely to sell out?

Aimee Misako Gabel [4:16]: We're pushing to do so. We have a little more space in Columbus than we did, but yeah, I would register now.

Mark Lapidus [4:22]: That's why I'm asking a question. I've had people complain to me before, and go, "Wow, I just didn't get in fast enough." If you're listening to this podcast, you want to register now, just to be sure.

Aimee Misako Gabel [4:32]: Yes! Register now.

Mark Lapidus [4:34]: This year's theme is "Ignite Your Spark." How did you arrive at that framing?

Aimee Misako Gabel [4:38]: Igniting Your Spark is clearly about motivation. It's action-oriented. It's about setting in motion the amazing professional ideas, as well as really tapping into our attendees' passions, talents, goals. We know that our industry colleagues are some of the hardest-working, and we want to be able to provide to them the best in business takeaways and opportunities to meet with each other and be energized from the learning and really empowered to find different solutions. We felt like that spark really captured the essence of what we were trying to create.

Mark Lapidus [5:09]: This is a really nice phrase, so give us a sneak peek - what can attendees expect this year?

Aimee Misako Gabel [5:14]: Speaking of sparking, our keynote sessions will, again, be a highlight. Our main stage, you'll hear things that you won't hear anywhere else in the industry. Sally Hogshead will help us dive into why we're impressed with certain people and certain brands, and how to capitalize on our own. She has deep, deep experience in branding from Nike and Coca-Cola. Her method of really helping us individually understand what drives us comes from reaching out to over a million different professionals. Mark, you may know Myers-Briggs, and it really helps you see our strengths. Her Fascinate test looks at what gives me, Aimee, a competitive difference. You, Mark, and Angie, and everybody else there will be able to take her Fascinate test and get feedback right away about what makes us unique as professionals, as well as how we, collectively, everyone at ESTO, can think differently about the way we work together. It's a great networking and get-smarter tool that we'll be using. I'm also excited about Sekou Andrews. He is one of the most successful spoken word poets in the world. He will have all of us standing up and just excited, about not only the opportunities ahead of us, but really being inspired to be transformational leaders and grow and be thoughtful in the way in which we're each taking a hand in the way that the travel industry is growing. That's a couple of highlights. We have many other keynote sessions. You can go on our website and see some of them. In addition, we have four amazing tracks: Accelerating Growth, which is really looking at how are marketers getting smarter, prepared for the future, capitalizing on growth opportunities. Impactful Insight Track, which is designed to dive into what's happening in the broader landscape and discuss trends that are happening that are impacting our travel industry. Destination Evolution Track will help the attendees be better positioned to design and attract new visitors to their destinations. We have a CEO track that's been expanded to our CMOs that really takes it up a notch and helps those executives think about how to collaborate and learn from each other. We've curated some sessions just for them to help them lead their teams.

Mark Lapidus [7:23]: Angie, anything you want to add to that?

Angie Briggs [7:24]: Aimee has outlined a great, strong educational program, but there are other things that are important. Different components of ESTO that are always fun, like our ESTO Cares, which is our community give-back program. We always have great participation in that, and it helps support the community. Explore Columbus has put together some really amazing destination immersions where you can get up close and personal with some of the community initiatives that support tourism in the city, which is always great for destinations to take some ideas back home. Many of them are working on similar projects, and it's inspiring to see how a DMO pulls a community together to really make a difference. And then, of course, there's also the social parts of things. The Summer Block Party is what we're calling the opening reception, which, of course, Brand USA has long been a sponsor of that opening reception. And they're co-hosting that this year with Experience Columbus. And it's going to be in this really great place, it's a cool indoor-outdoor warehouse district venue that really dives into the vibrant art and music. We're going to have games and, of course, food and drinks for everyone. It's a great way to kick off. And every year, we celebrate the best marketing in the business at our Destiny & Mercury Awards dinner. And this year's theme is "Illuminate the Night." Historically, we've always had a theme for it, but this year it's going to be, wear your bright whites and your glitziest metallics, and prepare to really honor those that have done some amazing work. We've actually had a record number of entries this year into the awards program, so we're excited to see how all the judging goes and honor those folks that have done a really good job.

Mark Lapidus [8:56]: Angie, you mentioned earlier that you've been going to ESTO for two decades, so what tips do have for newbies?

Angie Briggs [9:01]: I tell you what - Columbus, first of all, has done an amazing job. Some of our most successful ESTOs over the years have been those that are in communities that are small and walkable, and you can network while you're socializing with folks. And this community definitely lends itself to that. People are going to be blown away by Columbus. I mean, the culinary scene is just incredible. One of my favorite culinary stars, Cameron Mitchell, has several restaurants there, and admittedly, I've been to a couple of them.

Mark Lapidus [9:29]: Thank goodness for site visits!

Angie Briggs [9:31]: Right. Exactly. And it's a very walkable downtown, with some dive bars and speakeasies nearby, all the things that we love as ESTO attendees. So as a first-timer, be prepared for that. And even though the attendance at ESTO has grown over the years - I can remember it was just four or five hundred people, and now we're looking at potentially 1,400 people - it still feels intimate. I think that that's a really important point to make to those first-timers, is that we make it easy for you to find your people. We're developing ESTO Pathways this year, and you can find out more on our website about these curated suggestions for how to maximize your ESTO experience. And as I said earlier, it's a great blend of first-timers and veterans in the industry, so everyone's really open to learning and sharing and guiding people. My pro tip is to arrive early. You don't want to miss the things that are going on Sunday. I know sometimes it's hard to plan your business travel over a weekend, and you miss a little bit of time with your family, but it's so worth it at ESTO to get there and dive right in on Sunday. One of the most important components I think that makes ESTO different is the peer-open forums, and they're on Sunday afternoon. And that's a chance for everyone to divide up by discipline. So whether you're in marketing and advertising, or you're in community relations, or you're in destination development, or public relations, or more, those groups break up by specific disciplines. And that's a great opportunity to network and talk about problem solving and great ideas specific to what your job is on a day-to-day basis. And it's also right before the opening session, so it's a great way to meet some new friends and walk to the session together, or meet up at the opening event together. Those are some of my tips for those that are going for the first time. There's just so much opportunity.

Mark Lapidus [11:23]: Pretty much any conference I've ever attended has a certain number of wallflowers. And I remember in my youth, as hard as it might be to believe, I'd get introverted when I would show up sometimes at these things. I would, I get a little shy about going up to strangers and talking to them. What suggestion do you have for those that are younger, and just not that experienced and engaging other people at shows like this?

Aimee Misako Gabel [11:46]: I like to find my people at sessions. We have a creative session on Sunday afternoon, specifically for networking and really finding your people. And part of every session, we're thinking about, what do you have in common and how do you strike up a conversation, from the way that we have the seating, to the way that we have the breaks. The solutions hubs on Sunday are meant to help you find solutions. So at each of those points, instead of walking into a reception of 800 people, just find your next door neighbor and strike up a conversation and see what you have in common. This industry is very generous, and it's been really easy for me to get to know the members, and I'm definitely an introvert.

Mark Lapidus [12:22]: Angie, do you want to add anything there?

Angie Briggs [12:24]: Yeah, personally, I'm an extrovert, so I have no idea what you guys are talking about. I'll be best friends with the person who checks me in at the Hilton when we arrive by the time I get to my room. So I do think this is a very generous industry, and we all want to see each other succeed. And so it's not uncommon for the veterans of this industry to seek out new people and make sure they're comfortable and see if they have questions. And even our own staff does that. So it's just as easy as it can be, I think, particularly in this environment.

Mark Lapidus [12:57]: Well, thank you both for the tips. And I'd like to use our remaining two minutes here to talk about something that we do on GoUSA TV at ESTO, so Jody Raida is here. She's our content consultant for GoUSA TV. Please meet Jody.

Aimee Misako Gabel [13:09]: Hello, Jody!

Angie Briggs [13:10]: Hi, Jody.

Jody Raida [13:11]: Hi, Aimee and Angie. Lovely to meet you both. I love hearing about ESTO and what's happening there this year.

Mark Lapidus [13:17]: Jody, can you tell our destination listeners about the GoUSA TV Storytelling Awards, please?

Jody Raida [13:23]: Sure, Mark. It's our sixth year doing the awards, I can't believe it. The awards showcase the most entertaining and original storytelling from U.S. destination marketers. And we give out an award for best video series for city, state, and there's also a diversity award. And like you just said, the awards are presented at a ceremony at ESTO.

Mark Lapidus [13:44]: Who are the judges this year, Jody?

Jody Raida [13:45]: We have some really great judges this year. They're all Hollywood producers and directors who've worked on well-known TV series, and they're really well-versed in creating and identifying compelling storytelling. So we have Rupert Maconick. He He's best known for producing documentaries with top directors like Werner Herzog and Martin Campbell. We have Clay Jeter, he directed Chef's Table and Live to a Hundred: Secrets of the Blue Zones, which is a really popular series on Netflix right now. We have Steve Harris. He's produced, I would probably say, thousands of hours of non-scripted programming for networks like TLC and A&E. So all of the judges are industry leaders, and they come to the table with a lot of experience with entertainment. And it's a lot of fun to watch the diverse stories about the U.S.

Mark Lapidus [14:33]: Jody, how do destinations enter?

Jody Raida [14:35]: The deadline for the entries is July 8th, so it's right around the corner. But if there's any destination that has a great series or a film and you want to enter it for this year's competition, just send us a link to the series or the film to [email protected], and we will look at it straight away.

Mark Lapidus [14:54]: Fantastic. Jody, thanks for joining us. Aimee and Angie, I look forward to seeing you both at ESTO in Columbus, Ohio.

Aimee Misako Gabel [15:00]: Thanks, I can't wait to meet everyone. See you soon.

Angie Briggs [15:02]: Looking forward to seeing everyone in Columbus.

Jody Raida [15:05]: Thanks so much.

Mark Lapidus [15:06]: I will be podcasting live from ESTO again this year, so if you're coming, dear listener, please drop by the podcast area and say hello. I'd love to hear your feedback about this show. To register for ESTO, visit And that's Brand USA Talks Travel. I'm Mark Lapidus, thanks for listening.

Outro [15:25]: Your feedback is welcome. Email us at [email protected] or call 202-793-6256. Brand USA Talks Travel is produced by Asher Meerovich, who also composes music and sound. Engineering by Brian Watkins. With extra help from Bernie Lucas, Nthanze Kariuki, and Casey D'Ambra. Please share this podcast with your friends in the travel industry. You may also enjoy many of our archived episodes, which you can find on your favorite podcast platform. Safe travels!

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In This Episode:
Aimee Misako Gabel's Headshot
Aimee Misako Gabel
Senior Vice President for Events and Education, U.S. Travel Association

Angie Briggs' Headshot
Angie Briggs
Vice President of Destination Engagement, U.S. Travel Association

Jody Raida's Headshot
Jody Raida
Content Consultant, GoUSA TV

Mark Lapidus' Headshot
Mark Lapidus
Host, Brand USA Talks Travel Podcast/Vice President, Content & Marketing Technology, Brand USA