NTA president Lisa Simon is stepping down after a seven-year tenure. One of the organization’s last actions under her leadership was its recent invitation to travel agents—a first—to participate in its annual Travel Exchange. This year’s event will be held Feb. 16 to 20 in Los Angeles.
Simon leaves behind an organization that, among its other accomplishments, has taken the initiative in developing the burgeoning inbound China travel market to the U.S.
Simon talked with Travel Market Report about the move to include travel agents, its efforts in the China market and trends in the tour operator segment.
Why did NTA decide to invite travel agents to its 2014 Travel Exchange?
Simon: Half of our members work with agents and there has been discussion about inviting them for years. It was finally decided that it is a good idea on a number of fronts. Those who already work with agents will have access to them. Those who don’t currently work with agents will benefit from networking with them and potentially developing relationships.
Ideally, the number of members who work with agents will grow. In addition, our suppliers and destination management organizations always like to see more buyers – and agents are buyers.
What’s in it for the agents?
Simon: It gives them an opportunity to meet not only with tour operators but with suppliers and destinations. We see a special opportunity in the special interest market education we have at the conference.
While they can stay for the entire week, we have specifically invited agents for a two-day program aimed at them which focuses heavily on special interest travelers.
There will also be special appointment sessions with tour operators. These are not one-on-one sessions but roundtables with one or two tour operators meeting with buyers. And even without an appointment agents can meet with suppliers on the floor – and network with everyone at social events.
What’s been the response from agents so far?
Simon: We have had a lot of interest and are expecting some registrants closer to the conference. We think it will be a regional situation with agents who are nearby attending. We have members in the Los Angeles area working with agent groups to promote the conference.
And the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA) and Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN) are promoting our travel agent program at Travel Exchange.
Does NTA work with agents in other ways?
Simon: Yes, we have partnered with ASTA on reaching out to the Hispanic market. We also have the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA) as a strategic partner.
Does this invitation to agents signal a commitment to the agency community?
Simon: Yes, we are very bullish on agents. It’s an important relationship on several fronts. The travel agent is the frontline distribution point that tour operators can count on to promote the idea of tours to their customers.
Most of the tour operators who don’t work with agents are smaller ones and we think they can benefit from that relationship as well. Also, while there is no current membership category for agents, we think that may happen at some point.
What do you consider NTA’s major accomplishments during your tenure?
Simon: We did the first Travel Exchange earlier this year that co-located our event with the United Motorcoach Association. The energy on the floor was really exciting. This year the conference will have lots of education, panel discussions and market-specific forums as well as social events.
What about your efforts in the China inbound market?
Simon: This is a huge program for us and probably what I’m most proud of. We are the only organization that approves tour operators who are able to do business with Chinese tour operators sending travelers to the U.S. Our participation was critical to the memo of understanding between China and the U.S. government.
China told the U.S. government that it had to have a list of qualified tour operators and the government said it couldn’t do that, but we agreed to do it.
We qualify operators based on their language capabilities, quality assurance, professional guides and whatever else the Chinese asked for. We then send our list, which now includes 144 qualified operators, to the Chinese tourism authorities.
What trends do you see in the tour operator community?
Simon: Technology is changing the way people do business and tour operators will continue to become better at online marketing and selling. Also, globalization is important. Even if you’re an operator with a regional constituency, you are dealing with a global marketplace.
Everyone has a bucket list and consumers want to travel everywhere. Tour operators have to be able to accommodate them – either themselves or through partners. That’s why we introduced international members in 2003 and now have members from 44 countries.
Has NTA done anything relating to the millennial market?
Simon: Millennials will have a huge impact on the travel product. We have had a task force on that for a couple of years and held our first Young Professionals Town Hall at our Travel Exchange in January.
Next year we will do that again as well as an Ask the Young Professionals sessions where a panel of millennials will discuss their preferences. We will have a similar session called Ask the Veterans with veteran members sharing their experiences.
What about NTA’s future?
Simon: It’s going in the right direction with its focus educationally and programmatically on special interest groups. Special interest will be the way to keep the tour product alive and relevant. People like to travel with like-minded people and experiential travel has never been more important.
What are your personal plans? Will you be staying in the industry?
Simon: I will likely stay in tourism, although I have not finalized any plans. I want to take some time to make sure I end up in the right place. I have been with NTA for the better part of my professional life and I love the organization, but it’s time for me to move on. It’s a great opportunity for the association to get in new leadership and new perspectives on moving forward during a time of rapid change.