NTA and Agents: A Good Fit
by Ana Figueroa /

Travel agents’ recent participation in last month’s NTA Travel Exchange—a first for NTA—proved a good fit for the association, according to its newly-elected chairman.

Paul Nakamoto, executive vice president of Gray Line of San Francisco,  said agents had been “a piece of the puzzle that’s been missing,” for NTA, whose members include tour operators, travel suppliers and destination marketing organizations, among others.

Agent turn out was modest but enthusiastic judging from the response of agents who attended the event last month in Los Angeles.

Travel Market Report spoke with Nakamoto about agents’ future involvement in NTA, the question of including agents as members and its priorities for 2014.

Most people associate NTA with the packaged tour business. But agents are a big part of that business. Do you plan to encourage more agent involvement in NTA?
Nakamoto: I come from a company that has always dealt with agents. For me, it’s a natural fit. I definitely think the travel agent community is a piece of the puzzle that’s been missing. We’re always interested in bringing more people under the big tent.

You attracted a modest number of agents to this year’s Travel Exchange although they seemed enthusiastic about networking with your members. Will you emphasize networking opportunities if you invite agents back next year?
Nakamoto: Definitely. I think it’s safe to say that people buy from those they know and trust. Networking is one of the key attributes of the NTA. The tourism industry in general is all about contacts.

You might not make the sale the first time you meet a supplier or operator. But it’s important to have a comfort level when you’re buying and selling travel. That goes for agents as well as tour operators.

Are you taking any steps to sign up agents as NTA members?
Nakamoto: We’re starting to take a look at a membership category for travel agents. We’re asking agents who participated in Travel Exchange to give us their opinion about how things went.

We’re also surveying members to see what worked and what should be improved. I think we all realize how important travel agents are.

What advice would you give to agents considering an NTA membership?
Nakamoto: Everything they’re looking for is under that NTA umbrella. As technology continues to change and evolve, we can make it easier for travel agents to buy product.

If nothing else, one of the greatest benefits comes from our member website. Agents can use it to search databases for product in different regions of the country. It’s an incredible resource of travel suppliers and tour operators.

What trends in the tour business can agents can learn from?
Nakamoto: Many of our traditional NTA tour operators specialize in the senior group market. You’d be amazed how important festivals have become.

If you were to go to any major festival, whether it’s hot air balloons or the Rose Parade, you’ll see lots of group tour buses. That’s something agents should keep in mind as a potential niche.

What about trends in the international market?
Nakamoto: From an international standpoint, visitors really want to touch it, see it and taste it. They want the authentic experience that they’re seen and read about.

From Europe we’re seeing more families traveling in groups; a lot more teens or young adults traveling with parents to our national parks. That’s really growing in popularity.

What are your priorities this year as NTA board chairman?
Nakamoto: We’re doing an executive search for our next NTA president. We’ve asked for input from leadership and staff. That’s our first priority this year, to find the right president. After that we have several things that fall into long-range goals.

Can you tell us about those?
Nakamoto: One key thing is small business support. Many of our members are family-owned companies. We also are looking at travel alliances, reaching out to other associations.

Members are also asking for more professional education. That applies to new industry executives as well as veterans. Technology is an area that’s really important. Members want to be able to communicate better using technology and social media. We’re doing our best to provide them with that knowledge.

We’re always interested in bringing more people under the big tent.

Paul Nakamoto, NTA