ASTA Priorities: $199 Memberships and Fighting Hotel Ads that Sidestep Agents

by Cheryl Rosen

ASTA today revealed two top agenda items for 2016: a new Independent Contractor membership category for independent travel agents, and a renewed focus on fighting “misleading hotel marketing campaigns” from the likes of Hilton designed to steer consumers to book direct.

The new $199 tier in the ASTA membership structure recognizes the growing importance of independent agents and seeks to draw them into the ASTA fold at a more affordable price point, ASTA Communications VP Jennifer Michels told TMR.

And topping the Government and Industry Affairs agenda for 2016 is the ongoing battle against what Michels calls “one of the two top concerns of our members.”

After a public squabble with Marriott that has since been resolved, ASTA now is “working with Hilton” over ads that say consumers can “get the best rate and free WiFi only when you book direct,” Michels said. “That’s simply not true; they give agents the same deal.”

Reaching out to ICs…

The new membership category is designed to encourage independent agents to join both ASTA and its subsidiary for ICs, the National Association of Career Travel Agents, Michels said. There are 155 travel agents who do that already, paying the full $325 for ASTA and $165 for NACTA.

“They join NACTA for the community and the camaraderie, the fam trips and the education. Then they join ASTA for the credibility and the clout and our Regulatory Compliance course, to get our Smart Briefs and our newsletters and, most of all, our direct sales leads.”

Still, though, “a lot of independent contractors just can’t pay that,” Michels said. “So we came up with this new membership category.”

To be eligible for the $199 IC membership, which will launch in mid-2016, agents must be affiliated with an ASTA Premium Agency member or be members of NACTA.

Thanking the travel-industry consortia, ASTA president and CEO Zane Kerby noted that their “enhanced commitment to the association by subsidizing and mandating membership” helped make the lower fees for ICs possible.

…and fighting the good fight

Top executives from ASTA and Hilton will be sitting down in January to kick off the Government and Industry Affairs agenda with an attempt to “come together on this issue. We don’t want to tell Hilton how to conduct its marketing, and we are open to solutions, but we really want to convey the concerns of all travel agents that this is really misleading to the public,” Michels told TMR.

Asked for a comment, Hilton Worldwide vice president of global marketing, Andrew Flack, told TMR in an email, "we do not disclose the details of our conversations with current or prospective partners. However, we are committed to our long-standing partnership with the travel agent community as they are an important part of our business. We want to make travel easy, convenient, and personalized for all our guests and working with the travel-agent community helps us achieve this."

Also on ASTA's Government and Industry Affairs agenda for 2016 are:

  • Fighting against misleading hotel marketing campaigns that tell consumers the best rates or free Wi-Fi and other perks only come by booking direct when agents have access to those same rates and inventory
  • Opposing state proposals to apply sales and hotel occupancy taxes to agency fees and other income
  • Wrapping up a campaign with the U.S. Travel Insurance Association to replace costly and complex travel insurance licensing regulations with a single state standard (currently in place in 42 states plus the District of Columbia)
  • Supporting the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, designed to lift the Cuba travel ban once and for all and allow our citizens to act as ambassadors of American values abroad
  • Working to mitigate the worst impacts of pending U.S. Department of Labor proposals related to overtime eligibility and independent contractors
  • Updating the DOT Regulatory Compliance Course launched this year that now has 1,600 agents enrolled and saving money by avoiding costly government fines

"In addition to our advocacy wins, in 2015 the traveling public was reminded that a professional travel agent is not only someone you go to when you want to book your dream trip, but is also someone essential at reducing risk, reducing stress, and taking care of you when the unexpected happens," Kerby said in the press release. "As we say here at ASTA, without an agent, you're on your own."

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I do think there are possibilities for traveler advisors to make money doing domestic trips. I charge a planning fee for my time and expertise, and then book commissionable hotels and activities that meet the client’s needs.

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