A one-week membership drive by ASTA aims to bring home the message that the association is critical to the long-term viability of the travel agency industry. Not incidentally, the Join and Be Counted drive also aims to ensure the future of the cash-strapped association.
Without ASTA, the industry has no protection from invasive laws and rulemakings that could seriously harm agencies’ bottom lines, CEO Tony Gonchar told Travel Market Report.
“This isn’t simply just a matter of a public resource going away. This is, if ASTA is not protecting me, who’s going to?” Gonchar said.
Operating at a loss
When Gonchar took over the reins of ASTA almost a year and a half ago, it counted just 25% of travel agents as members. That low participation rate, which hasn’t changed much, is taking a toll on the association.
“For 10 years, ASTA has been operating at a loss. It cannot continue to tap into reserves that are being depleted. The only way we can effectively move forward is to have more people become members. It is a simple mathematical fact.”
Demonstrating its value
Before launching a full-scale membership drive, Gonchar needed first to demonstrate the value of ASTA to agents. It has done so visibly a number of times, he said.
Since January, “ASTA, along with its members, has been successful in defeating laws that would have placed unfair burdens on travel agents.”
State proposals to tax travel agent hotel booking fees were killed in Connecticut, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia, after lobbying by ASTA and local members. Last year ASTA defeated similar proposals in Texas and Pennsylvania.
More state governments are likely to propose taxing agents, making ASTA’s role all the more critical, Gonchar suggested.
“What we’re seeing is acceleration in proposals to create tax systems that would alleviate some of the state deficits. More than ever there is a need for somebody ensuring that these damaging rules are not passed.”
The association also played a key role in convincing Travelport to rescind aspects of its new Agility program.
And it played an integral part in interpreting for agents the Department of Transportation’s new regulations regarding airfare advertising and all-inclusive pricing.
Gonchar also cited ASTA’s role in the media’s “significant love affair” with the travel agency community that has been in evidence since the beginning of the year.
“All of this press is a result of the efforts of both ASTA and its members demonstrating to the consumer press that there is a tremendous advantage to using a travel advisor.”
Time to step up
Now that ASTA has clearly demonstrated its worth, it is time for the agency community to do its part, Gonchar said.
In considering membership, agents should look past the immediate benefits of membership, such as training courses and FAM trips, he said.
For one thing, increased membership will help ASTA communicate its message on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
“It’s difficult to go to Capitol Hill and say, ‘I’ve only got 20% of the members of this profession.’ It will resonate much more effectively if we can speak on behalf of a larger percentage.”
Big picture view
Gonchar acknowledged that it isn’t always obvious to agents why they should care about certain ASTA initiatives. “If ASTA is talking about a DOT rulemaking on ancillary fees that is going to be decided in 2013, and I don’t sell airline tickets, well, why is that important to me?”
Gonchar’s answer: “If there isn’t a strong ASTA protecting members, they’ll have to do it themselves. When you think about the costs associated with doing that (lobbying), it becomes a burden that many agencies simply can’t take on.”
ASTA’s Join and Be Counted membership campaign begins May 14 and runs through May 21.
Membership costs are modest and should not prohibit agencies from joining, Gonchar said.
A regular agent membership is $277 per year, or about 76 cents a day. That’s low enough that “it shouldn’t be the deciding factor of whether someone stays in business or not.”