Agents: What can the USTOA do for you?

By Michelle Baran
InsightWhen Terry Dale became president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association two years ago, the question became whether he would approach engaging travel agents the same way he did at CLIA.

Dale came to the USTOA after seven years as CEO of CLIA, during which time he created the cruise association's Cruise3sixty trade show and conference. But it doesn't appear that Dale will be bringing the same type of agent-friendly conference to the USTOA.

"I'm not sure that agents have the time and money [for another conference]," Dale said. "I don't see in the near future creating a standalone event."

He said that while Cruise3sixty is a success, he was unsure whether the concept would work for the tour operator space.

"It's a pretty big commitment long-term," he said. "From a staff and resource perspective, I think there are better ways to spend our resources."

What's interesting, however, is that tour operators and packagers strongly rely on the trade distribution channel to sell their products, arguably even more so in many instances than the cruise industry. While tour operators invest heavily to market to and engage with agents individually, somehow as an organization the USTOA has been less effective in creating a strong awareness and interaction with the retail community.

"I don't believe most travel agents know much about the work of USTOA, so more communication of what USTOA does for the travel industry and how it benefits the travel agency channel may be helpful," John Werner, president and COO of Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based Mast Vacation Partners, wrote in an email.

For now, the USTOA is using its website and social media to reach out to agents. The organization's website was relaunched last month with an improved member operator search function and will soon feature more training and educational tools for agents to use.

The USTOA is also introducing what it is calling "coffee chats" on Facebook. These will be an opportunity for active member executives to host chat sessions during which they will give their perspectives on what is going on in the industry, and agents can tune in.

"For an organization of our size, social media is a way in which we can provide more interaction," Dale said.

So, agents, how would you like to see the USTOA engaging you? Are online and social media initiatives enough, or would you be interested in some kind of face-to-face event?

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 
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