San Francisco Chronicle, Mallory Moench, March 14, 2022

Mayor London Breed is embarking on a 10-day trip to four European destinations to meet with local leaders and airlines to sell San Francisco to tourists and businesses, a bid to help the city rebound economically from the pandemic.

The mayor is leaving Monday night with officials from San Francisco International Airport and the San Francisco Travel Association, the city’s tourism bureau, to try to revive international travel, which is critical to the city’s economy, her spokesman Jeff Cretan said.

To do so, she has to battle negative perceptions of the city: viral videos of thieves targeting out-of-state license plates for car break-ins, shoplifters sweeping drugstore shelves, and people sleeping or using drugs on the streets as the city grapples with the opioid overdose crisis have soured San Francisco’s image nationally and internationally.

Breed said Monday that on a similar trip last month to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., she heard from business leaders that “safety was at the top of their mind” and assured them the city was deploying more police officers and ambassadors to tourist hot spots. She also said the airport, hotels and rental car companies were working to warn visitors against leaving suitcases visible in their car, for example.

“We want them to have a good experience, we want them to be safe, we want them to not lose their valuables and passports, because that is going to have a tremendous impact,” Breed said after a news conference Monday at Salesforce Park announcing an upcoming series of events to draw workers and visitors back downtown. “If that continues, if the people who commit those crimes continue, then guess what? Our economy will plummet and all of the resources and the programs and things that we do will suffer.”

The 10-day tour is Breed’s first international trip as mayor, halfway through her first full term. It will take place as she’s been praised for the handling of the pandemic that kept deaths in San Francisco lower than other major urban areas, but as the city has struggled to bounce back economically. Prior to the pandemic, the city was dependent on drawing tourists from across the country and abroad to fill hotels, restaurants and its convention center. The emptying out of downtown offices has hurt small businesses that rely on workers and in doing so has shrunk tax revenue, which is essential to funding the city’s budget.

Travel to San Francisco International Airport from Europe through December was just 20% of what it was in 2019, said Doug Yakel, an airport spokesperson, “so there is still a lot of ground to recover.”

Europe is SFO’s primary tourism target this summer, Yakel said, since many nations have eased or lifted COVID travel and testing requirements. Along with Breed’s visit, SFO plans marketing campaigns across Europe promoting San Francisco. SFO will continue a program offering incentives to new airlines starting service to San Francisco or to airlines that add flights to San Francisco to or from new cities, Yakel said.

In her annual State of the City address last week, Breed acknowledged negative public perceptions — mentioning headlines “often in the right-wing media”— and said that “for too long, we took our economic success for granted.” She said San Francisco “can be the economic leader our state needs … but we have to work at it.”

The city’s tourism and hospitality sector is projected to rebound over the next year, but at a slower pace than budgeted, a recent analysis reported. Remote work is leading to lost business tax revenue, although the level of loss is expected to be less than previously projected, the report said.

The mayor’s trip is paid for by SFO, which is run by the city but has a budget separate from other departments. Officials from SF Travel, which organized the mayor’s recent trip to sell San Francisco to major U.S. cities including New York and Chicago, will also be joining. The cost of the trip for the mayor and her staff is expected to total $25,000, Yakel said.

“Given San Francisco’s proactive leadership among U.S. cities during the pandemic, there is a good story for the mayor to share,” Yakel said, “and we are confident that her attendance on this trip will ultimately benefit not only the airport, but other businesses that rely on air service from SFO.”

She will be stopping in London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris. The bulk of her time will be meeting with airlines — Air France, British Airways, Air Belgium, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic among them — to get ahead of their schedule planning for next year and try to bring more flights to San Francisco.

She’ll be meeting with executives at Britain’s Heathrow and Gatwick international airports and Brussels International Airport, as well as with other local officials. She will also be talking to Mayor Anne Hidalgo in Paris and doing media interviews in London, Frankfurt and Paris to drum up interest in San Francisco.

SFO was previously a gateway for visitors from Asia, but strict pandemic quarantine restrictions in Asian countries have hindered those trips from bouncing back during the pandemic, Cretan said.

“Europe is a real opportunity for us,” he said. “We need to get out there.”

Breed will return March 26.