The National Tour Association (NTA) Travel Exchange took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center this week, and for the first time in its history, travel agents were invited.
Some 3,600 travel suppliers from North America and 30 international destinations attended the Feb. 16-20 event, which combined NTA’s annual conference with the United Motorcoach Association EXPO.
Adding retail travel agents to the mix proved to be a good move, agents and suppliers told Travel Market Report.
Enthusiastic agent response
Monica Busby, owner of Lifestyle Design Travel in Los Angeles, said she was extremely impressed by the conference.
Busby specializes in a few travel niches, including cycling tours and educational travel for home-school groups. She also has a background in the entertainment industry, providing her with a source of high-end clients interested in adventure travel.
Busby came to the conference hoping to connect with some adventure and faith-based suppliers. She participated in roundtable networking sessions, which exceeded her expectations, she said.
“I got to meet face-to-face with tour operators and DMOs catering to what I’m looking for. That’s really important to me. I don’t have time to put itineraries together. My job is to sell the package,” said Busby.
Expertise & contacts
Meeting suppliers in person will increase Busby’s value to her clients, she said.
“I have more details and options to offer, and now have additional tour operators to back me up. These days, clients care about an agent’s expertise and contacts. That was a huge event for me,” said Busby.
She also gained practical know-how on topics such as co-op marketing.
“Several tour operators talked about ways they work with agents to help promote packages. That’s something I didn’t know about before. It makes me realize how valuable this event is for agents. I will definitely spread the word and be here again next year if we’re invited,” said Busby.
The NTA invited agents to participate in two days of the five-day event.
Special sessions included a networking roundtable offering agents the chance to meet with tour operators and destinations.
Agents were also invited to some regularly-scheduled conference events. They included seminars on romance travel, young professionals and Hispanics in travel, as well as a panel discussion hosted by the newly formed Faith Travel Association.
Another highlight on the schedule: an adventure and active travel leaders luncheon featuring G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip.
Suzanne Slavitter, vice president of Sports Empire, a tour operator in Lakewood, Calif., chaired the NTA's travel agent task force for the convention. "We're hearing nothing but raves from agents, and the program added value to all members, too, by bringing new partners, new ideas and new opportunities," she said.
Suppliers respond to agents
Other suppliers said they saw the inclusion of agents as a positive step for the conference.
“I’ve been involved in NTA for more than a decade. The Travel Exchange is all about networking. In this group, you develop friendships, you develop trust, and that’s how you develop your business,” said Agustin Caparros, owner of A Closer Look Tours in Phoenix.
If there’s a takeaway from the conference for agents, it’s “partnership,” said Caparros.
“I hope they [agents] get the sense that this business is all about networking. Agents should ask questions, be friends with the suppliers they want to work with. We’re all in this together,” said Caparros.
Reaching out to agents
Jorge Gamboa Patron, Los Angeles director of the Mexico Tourism Board, agreed.
“We’re attending the event for the sixth consecutive year. We had 23.7 million arrivals to Mexico in 2013, which is almost an 8% increase. This year is also getting off to a great start.
“We have travel agents to thank for much of that success. So, we try to reach out to them in all possible ways. I’m happy to see them here,” said Gamboa.
Some suppliers were especially enthusiastic about meeting agents at the event.
“It was great to have agents here, because they might not normally think of a company like ours when they plan travel for their clients,” said Renato Rufino, international group sales supervisor for Broadway.com.
Rufino said he had productive discussions with several agents.
“We don’t offer commissions per se, but we work with agents on small group sales. There are lots of ways we can work together. If your clients are traveling in the U.S., we can get them to a hit show just about anywhere.
“Customer service is the top priority for us. We know that’s how agents operate as well,” said Rufiino.