Despite a year filled with executive orders imposing travel restrictions, geopolitical saber-rattling, debates over healthcare and tax reform, and a series of natural disasters, the travel agency community and its industry finds itself in a strong position, according to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), and poised for a better new year.
As the House of Representatives was set to vote on the largest tax reform legislation in U.S. history since the Reagan Administration, ASTA held a final press conference Tuesday, marking the year that was 2017.
Eben Peck, ASTA executive vice president, advocacy, recounted the major human-made challenges and natural disasters that forced travel agents and the rest of the industry to seemingly be in constant response mode, both in an attempt to protect the travel industry, and to promote its benefits to consumers.
Travel and electronics bans abounded
From “Travel Ban 1.0” to version 3.0, electronics bans and airline passengers being forcibly removed, to the Cuban travel crisis, nearly every month this year has been a busy one for ASTA, he noted. Much of the change was the result of a new, Republican administration entering into power after eight years of a Democrat in the White House.
Peck reminded the media of the chaos at the airports in late January following Travel Ban 1.0, because “Customs wasn’t clear on what the rules were. That had a ripple effect on whether people would be welcome in the U.S.” In February, ASTA was monitoring travel booking reports by members to determine any impact on travel.
Peck said he was relieved to see the “scaled back” and “narrower version” of Travel Ban 3.0, approved by the Supreme Court in early December.
Similarly, Peck was happy that a laptop/electronics ban was repealed this fall, although he warned that there are “rumbles” about banning electronics in checked bags in the coming year. Discussions about such a ban have been initiated within the United Nations agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, “but there is not necessarily anything that is going to happen anytime soon,” Peck said.
In regards to the current tax reform legislation moving through Congress, Peck said none of ASTA’s concerns about legislation that could impact independent contractors or “pass-through” income are in the bill being voted on.
“Basically, nothing we were really worried about is in there. On the whole, it is good for our industry,” he said, with the promise that lower tax rates will “hopefully juice the economy.”
Meanwhile, Peck is optimistic that the current Republican-led administration and Department of Labor (DOL) will look favorably on finally taking travel agents off the DOL “black list.” Being on the list forces travel agencies to pay overtime for employees at certain pay levels.
In general, Peck is hopeful for the coming year, as ASTA’s board focuses on raising consumer awareness, its government affairs agenda, and increasing chapter engagement. “All signs are positive. We’re in growth mode versus playing defense,” he said.
ASTA internal programs succeed
The legislative success ran parallel with operational success, said Peck.
For example, ASTA’s Political Action Committee (ASTA PAC) raised a little more than $230,000 this year, exceeding the goal of $225,000. The organization also tripled its independent contractor membership, growing it from 195 in 2016, to 648 through September of this year. Part of that growth was stimulated by its agreements and promotions with host agencies like Nexion, Uniglobe and Oasis, Peck said.
Similarly, ASTA grew its chapter base by 11 this year to 36 in total.
Peck also reported that the Verified Travel Agent (VTA) program, launched at the Global Convention this summer, has already produced its first 12 graduates. He said 158 members have started their course work and another 479 have started the enrollment process.
Several universities and colleges with hospitality programs have been talking to ASTA about the program, designed to build member knowledge about legal and ethical issues and boost consumer trust, Peck said. “The graying of our workforce is an open secret. So, if we can use this program to solve that issue, that would make us very happy,” he said.
ASTA is still working on plans to promote the VTA certification to the public, to help set ASTA agents apart as holding higher standards.
Finally, ASTA also reported that it contributed to the media producing 1,158 articles featuring the organization or travel agents, reaching more than 244 million people in 2017.
Rapid response mode set for 2018
Communications director Erika Richter believes that the Trump administration will continue to announce initiatives and float trial balloons through the media, especially on Fridays, causing more reaction-mode responses in the coming year.
“I think that is going to continue. A lot of their initiatives have a heavy media agenda, a lot of fanfare. I think they do it to keep the media cycle going over the weekend,” she said.
ASTA's 2018 calendar of events includes the organization's Premium Business Summit in New York City, March 4-5; the ASTA Summit in Athens, Greece, April 14-17; Legislative Day in Washington, D.C., May 7-8; and the ASTA Global Convention back again in Washington, Aug. 21-23.