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The American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) Legislative Day is a unique event. Not only does it enable travel agents to meet with their representatives on Capitol Hill to discuss the issues that affect their businesses most, but it also draws together a cross-section of the travel industry spanning multiple consortia, host agencies and supplier partners. This year’s Legislative Day was the largest yet with more than 100 agents in attendance.
The event kicked off on Tuesday, June 6, with a 6 p.m. reception at the U.S. Capitol. ASTA members from 25 states were represented.
Several members of Congress were honored with ASTA’s 2017 Global Travel Advocate Award: Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.). Both are co-sponsors of the Travel Agent Retail Fairness Act, which, if passed, would remove agents from a list banning them from utilizing an exemption to overtime rules.
Legislative Day’s main action began the next morning, on Wednesday, June 7. At 7 a.m., breakfast began at The Watergate Hotel, which hosted morning training sessions designed to prepare attendees for their meetings.
At 7:45 a.m., the first session, Drilling Down on the Issues, began. Moderated by Eben Peck, ASTA’s senior vice president of government and public affairs, the discussion highlighted each of the three issues that the Society decided to focus on this year. It also gave agents key “asks” to pose to their legislators.
First up was the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill. Today, travel agents have to make seven disclosures (such as that a flight is a codeshare) to consumers whenever they sell an air ticket. During the reauthorization process taking place this year, ASTA fears additional disclosures could be added to that list, as has happened in the past. Peck urged agents to first ask their legislators if new disclosures are actually necessary, then, if they are, to ask legislators to introduce them in a way that would reduce the burden on agents.
ASTA general counsel Peter Lobasso briefed agents on the day’s second issue, The Travel Agent Retail Fairness Act. Since the 1970s, agencies have been on a so-called “blacklist,” preventing them from using a Retail Service Establishment exemption to overtime rules. ASTA contends that agents should qualify for the exemption. Therefore, Lobasso said, agents should ask their representatives to either co-sponsor or support the bill removing them from the list.
Finally, agents were told to ask for their representatives’ support of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would permit unrestricted travel to the island. Considering the White House’s current review of travel to Cuba, it was a particularly timely topic.
Before agents were set loose on Capitol Hill, another panel covered Advocacy 101 and the logistics of the meetings. Roy Schultheis, chief of staff for Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), emphasized that agents’ voices as constituents were important in setting legislators’ agendas.
Kelly Kolb, vice president of government affairs for Travelport and a former legislative assistant, agreed.
“You are the constituent,” she said. “They are happy to see you in that room. I think that when you go in there and you meet them face to face and you build that relationship, that is the best thing that you want coming out of this meeting.”
At 10:30 a.m., the meetings on Capitol Hill began. Agents were assigned meetings with their representatives in Congress and the Senate, and went in with two primary focuses: discussing the issues at hand and building relationships for the future. Throughout the day, they made their way between the House and Senate buildings to meet with legislators and their aids.
Some, such as Hickory Global Partners president Christopher Dane, were veterans of Legislative Day and already knew their representatives.
“The whole process to me was fascinating and valuable,” he said over lunch after his morning meetings. “They actually listen, and they want to know [about issues facing your business].”
Others were first-timers at Legislative Day, such as Wendy Goodenow, president and owner of HNL Travel Associates in Honolulu.
“I think it’s fascinating that we can do the face to face,” she said, after meeting with a senator’s aide. “I have a chance to see how it works, and they have a chance to see that travel agents really exist.”
At 5 p.m., attendees converged in a New Jersey Avenue townhouse for a reception concluding the day. Several legislators stopped by, as well, while agents swapped stories of their meetings.
Eric Maryanov, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based All-Travel.com, said he met with five different legislators. All were responsive to the issues the agents discussed.
“Most everybody knew that travel agencies do still exist and understood the importance of the agency community,” he said. “I think we got a lot of traction and interest from the various people we met.”