There are few dates more important to the travel trade each year than the annual American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) Legislative Day, which took place this week in Washington, D.C.
The day brings together travel advisors, supplier partners, and ASTA staff to gather and engage with lawmakers about the issues that matter to them the most, the ones impacting their businesses and their bottom lines on a daily basis. It is pure grassroots advocacy that has, time and time again proved to be most effective for shaping legislative agendas.
More than 230 travel advisors from 47 states came to D.C. for this year’s Legislative Day, just three states shy of its 50-state goal. Just a few years ago, according to Chris Seddelmeyer, the owner of Ohio’s Travel Concepts and co-chair of ASTA’s Government Affairs Committee, it would be a task to get advisors from 30 states to Legislative Day, which makes this year’s turnout that much more impressive.
“This is the most significant event of the ASTA year,” she said. “Being able to visit our legislators to see how the system works is absolutely incredible.”
Legislative Day could be the only time all year a lawmaker or their staff meet with a travel advisor in person, so the importance of being able to make a connection, and convey a message, to the people making the laws that govern the travel industry can’t be overstated.
The travel trade, and the travel industry in general, had been more affected by COVID-19 and related leftover impacts and legislation than perhaps any other industry. Advisors and agency owners suffered disproportionately through the pandemic, and with corporate travel and long-haul international travel still only on the path to recovery, many are still below 2019 levels despite demand returning.
Advisors and agency owners are meeting with lawmakers all this week to make them aware of that impact, and to implore them to support relevant, realistic laws that would help the industry on its path to recovery.
“The industry owes you all debt of gratitude for making all of us visible in the eyes of our elected officials,” Zane Kerby, ASTA president and CEO, said to attendees on Tuesday.
However, Kerby added, “Congressional meetings can be tricky,” so ASTA did its best to prepare its members and Legislative Day attendees ahead of time.
How to Save the Travel Trade
Ahead of Wednesday’s meetings, ASTA walked members through legislative training in order to maximize their time on the Hill. Time will always be of the essence during Legislative Day—some meetings will wrap up in the span of 15 minutes—so advisors needed to be prepared to communicate a concise, clear message.
Jessica Klement, who joined ASTA as vice president of advocacy late last year, along with David Peluso, a partner at KDCR, bipartisan government affairs firm, and Jason Jordan from the public affairs firm Advocacy Associates gave advisors the rundown on Tuesday.
“There are lots of different flavors for how we try to influence public policy,” Jordan said, adding that “amplifying voices of constituents through grassroots advocacy,” like Legislative Day, is one of the most effective “flavors.”
Lawmakers, or their staff members who were most often the people that advisors met with on Wednesday, want to know who advisors are, what the issues are, and what can be done to help them out, messages that are most effective without politics or big reports attached.
ASTA staff told advisors to tell the person they’re meeting where they’re from and what they do including any personal connections they may have to the lawmaker. Then, tell them how you became a travel advisor and what you specialize in, and tell a personal story about how COVID has affected your business. Be clear, concise, and straightforward and be prepared to roll with the punches, whether that be a time cut or a change in venue.
Those messages, along with personal anecdotes about how COVID-19 is impacting advisors, if delivered correctly, “drive decision making in a way that might surprise you,” Jordan said.
Still, even with the short-time period, the chance to meet with lawmakers or their staff also gives advisors the opportunity to develop a relationship that can serve as a door-opener down the road.
“This is how you build your influence over the long-term,” Jordan added.
This Year’s Priorities
Just a few weeks ago, ASTA’s priorities at this year’s Legislative Day were different. The issue impacting business the most was the U.S.’s inbound testing requirement, which was going to be one of the two major focuses of this year’s governmental outreach.
The much-welcomed news a few weeks ago that the U.S. was dropping that mandate—“a day that will live in joy,” Eben Peck added—gave ASTA the opportunity to quickly reassess priorities for their day on the Hill.
Aside from messages of gratitude for the lawmakers who helped make that happen, ASTA stressed two priorities for the meetings.
The first was the restoration of the Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC), something that ASTA has been stressing ever since it was dropped as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year.
While the ERTC is not applicable to ICs, agencies with at least one employee relied on it for relief, and planned on it being part of their bottom line, as business still struggled to come back.
“The rug got pulled out from under them,” Peck said, adding that the move was “completely unfair.”
The goal was to get the ERTC retroactively restored starting in quarter four of 2021. That would need to happen as part of a legislative vehicle, either through Build Back Better reconciliation, the USICA/China Competition Bill, or a change to the year-end tax bill.
Aside from that, the pushback that this faces on the Hill is that $6 trillion has been spent on COVID relief and some lawmakers will be looking to offset the cost of ERTC restoration (approximately $8 billion). However, Peck said, “people planned for this, Congress took it away” and it’s the responsibility of elected officials to budget for these programs, not the program’s recipients.
The second big priority this year is the passage of the Visit America Act. That is a bipartisan act that establishes an Assistant Secretary of Travel and Tourism within the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The U.S. remains the only G20 country without a federal agency or cabinet-level official in charge of tourism policy, and while the Act wouldn’t put someone at the cabinet level, it would represent significant progress, adding a high-level official to work with partners across the world on travel issues.
According to Peck, the pandemic highlighted just how much not having someone oversee the sector affected those who work in travel.
“The pandemic highlighted the scattered nature of federal oversight of the travel trade,” he said.
Aside from the position, it would also require the Department of Commerce to develop and implement a COVID-19 public health emergency recovery strategy in order to help the travel and tourism industry continue its recovery.
“We’ve been talking about this for two years,” he said, adding that it would help travel and tourism prepare for “the next big disruption” to the industry.
The initial March 2021 Visit America Act has since been rolled into a broader Omnibus Travel And Tourism Act that advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee in December 2021. According to Peck, there is possible movement on this by the end of the year. Peck was also a little more optimistic about the Visit America Act garnering support because of the lack of cost compared to the ERTC restoration.