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“It’s a new ASTA. It’s clearly a new ASTA.”
When Jay Ellenby said this last September — during his first press conference as chairman of the board for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) at the organization’s Global Convention in Nevada — he was calling attention to the revival of an association whose image and effectiveness has, at times, been called into question.
Although the society has waged (and won) many hard-fought battles in its 86-year history, over the past few decades, ASTA has also faced what seems like an endless stream of challenges. The airline commission caps and cuts in the mid-1990s were followed by the introduction of massive online travel agencies that promised low-cost, quick-and-efficient travel planning as an alternative to using a traditional travel advisor. And as online travel sites continued to grow, even some of the most successful agencies consolidated or closed their doors as consumers assumed that the traditional travel agent was headed toward extinction.
But the industry — and the perception of agents — has taken a turn. Recent research released by ASTA reveals that travel advisors save consumers an average of $452 per vacation and four hours of planning time. Additionally, research from MMGY Global shows that millennials — the digital natives — are the No. 1 generation seeking the help of agents.
A restructuring of ASTA’s governance is adding to the momentum. ASTA CEO Zane Kerby came onboard in 2013, and the board of directors has amended membership fee structures and made changes to the way local chapters are organized.
Since then, all membership categories and financial contributions are growing, with the society now representing approximately 9,000 advisors and 700 supplier members. This is in part thanks to strong relationships with consortia or host agencies that mandate or subsidize membership.
And, as announced at the 2016 Global Convention, 2017 will mark the third consecutive year in which the society is financially in the black.
Tense relationships with certain suppliers are starting to thaw, too. A 2015 direct-booking campaign from Marriott International first drew a negative response from ASTA, but Arne Sorenson, the brand’s CEO, attended last year’s Global Convention to speak to the agent community about the importance of a strong supplier-advisor relationship. The next day, during an on-stage interview, Dave Hilfman, senior vice president of worldwide sales for United Airlines, discussed the possibility of airlines offering commission on ancillary fees. (In 2015, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines were represented at the convention for the first time since the airline commission cuts of the ’90s.)
In the midst of this progress, there’s no doubt that ASTA is sending a positive message to travel agents about the future of their careers. Here’s how the organization expects to keep the momentum going in 2017.On the HillASTA is headquartered just outside Washington, D.C., where Kerby and his team present themselves as the voice of the agent community and a liaison between members and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In 2017, the association has already taken a stand on several travel issues, from President Donald Trump’s immigration executive order to the debate on whether phone calls should be allowed in-flight.
Eben Peck, senior vice president for government affairs and communications for ASTA, says the society will spend much of the coming spring working with the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Trump administration on traveler issues.
In the case of in-flight calls, the DOT last December proposed that airlines should ultimately decide whether they be allowed, but that a consumer must be notified at the point of purchase. Peck sees it as a “quality of life” issue, and says that ASTA has taken a strong stance against in-flight calls in comments submitted to the DOT in February. But, if the proposal is passed, he hopes the DOT will exempt travel agents from any additional regulations, such as disclosure requirements.
“We think there has to be a better way to deal with all these disclosures, from code-sharing to hazardous materials, so we’re going to be suggesting some ways that the DOT can streamline this process,” said Peck during an ASTA press call last month. “We view this as an airline problem, yet the responsibility for dealing with it has been put on the agent, and we object to that.”
CEO Kerby agrees. In a letter sent to lawmakers in 2016 regarding the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, he noted that it is unnecessary to make consumers — many of them loyal, repeat clients — listen to a “multi-minute litany of disclosures” over the phone or in person when a booking is made.
The DOL also appeared on ASTA’s radar recently because of an overtime expansion proposal that more than doubles the annual salary threshold under which full-time employees must be offered overtime (from $23,660 to $47,476). The rule is currently on hold.
Travel agencies are on a “blacklist” that prohibits them from claiming exemption to this rule. However, forcing them to comply could potentially have a disastrous effect on small and family-owned businesses.
According to Peck, ASTA filed a petition with the DOL late last year to remove agencies from this list, but it was denied. It may be refiled, he says, but Congress can also introduce a bill that would overrule the DOL. So far, at least one member of Congress has tentatively agreed to support the initiative, and ASTA is searching for other co-sponsors, too.
“We lost round one, but we’re still charging ahead,” he said. “We have a good plan, and we hope to get a lead on this in the next year or so.”
The organization is also monitoring whether President Trump will reverse Obama’s executive orders regarding travel to Cuba (a situation ASTA would oppose), and how agents should discuss controversial travel policies — such Trump’s immigration executive order — with clients.
“These policies have an effect on the industry, and it’s important for us to tell that story while knowing that emotions are running high and that people have different viewpoints on specific actions,” Peck said. “Travel agents should share their guidance and make sure people know the rules.”One of the important roles of a travel agent, he adds, is to “act as counselor or psychologist — managing expectations and managing fears.”
All Eyes on the ConsumerFor the past eight years, ASTA has surveyed its membership about the services it provides. According to Kerby, the results show that members believe one thing has been neglected above all else: increasing consumer awareness about the importance of using a travel agent.
As a result, last year, the Chapter Presidents Council pledged to contribute a six-figure sum toward consumer-targeted initiatives. The society used the money to pay for a couple of advertisement campaigns on The Travel Channel’s website that directed potential clients to TravelSense.org, ASTA’s consumer-facing website.
TravelSense.org, which recently received an update, has the ability to connect consumers directly with an ASTA agent and is seeing up to 30,000 weekly visitors (compared to the 7,000 to 8,000 who clicked before the ads ran), according to Kerby.
Additionally, the organization partnered with ITN Productions to create a current-affairs news program, “Travel Agents Taking Off,” which was launched at last year’s Global Convention and made available for members to upload to their own websites.
Local chapters got onboard with the initiatives, too. Pamela Irwin, former president of the Southern California chapter of ASTA (SoCal ASTA), says her chapter ran spots on local NPR and PBS stations.
In 2017, the organization plans to continue to shape the travel agent narrative.
The partnership with ITN Productions remains, but ASTA will be changing the format to something more lifestyle-oriented and will host episodes on TravelSense.org. And this January, ASTA announced the launch of a Consumer Awareness Committee — made up of 13 experts in travel and marketing — to assist in developing new campaigns.
Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing for host agency Travel Planners International, is one member of the committee. Although she’s new to both the travel industry and ASTA, she hopes she can bring her many years of marketing experience to the table.
“We are well aware of the impact ASTA can have in helping to educate consumers,” she said. “And if consumers understand how agents work, they’ll use them. But, right now, they have no idea how a travel agent gets paid, so they assume, and they fill in the blanks. ASTA needs to fill in the blanks for them.”
Misty Ewing Belles, another committee member, is the managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso, an organization with PR efforts that, she says, generate “billions of consumer impressions each year” and often highlight the benefits of using an advisor.
“ASTA’s Consumer Awareness Committee can allow us to band together with like-minded members of the travel industry and work together toward a common goal,” she said. “That goal is to educate consumers on how to travel better by taking advantage of the advice, access, advocacy and accountability that can only come from working with a professional advisor.” A United VoiceASTA has 26 national chapters, and board chairman Ellenby reports that ASTA hopes to add 10 more in the coming year.
Although about 65 percent of members are based on the East Coast, eight chapters are in the Western U.S., a region that has its own challenges (three of the five states that currently require advanced travel agent licensing are located in the West, for example).
SoCal ASTA’s Irwin says she lobbies on behalf of agents in the state capital of Sacramento, Calif., at least once per year, and she is also an active member of the California Coalition of Travel Organizations. She helps plan chapter events, as well, including SoCal ASTA’s Millennials & Mentors program and a scholarship program for agents.
“Everyone benefits from ASTA membership,” Irwin said. “We need to be a united voice. I understand better now than ever before: Agents are spread the thinnest they’ve ever been spread in history.”
Kerby hopes to continue developing ASTA’s mutually beneficial relationship with advisors, and he assures agents that, no matter where they live or the region they serve, the organization will continue to work diligently for them.
“The problems travel agents face are very real,” he said. “There are serious things that go on, and agents should be aware of the need to have a seat at the table in order to shape a good outcome. We are that voice, and we are mission-driven. We expand with support, and we contract with ambivalence.”