Agent Issues Meet the retailers on the federal panel June 11, 2002 Share 1 -- Maryles Casto: Knows MinetaBy Laura Del RossoSANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Maryles Casto is in a prime position to represent the corporate travel agency community on the National Commission to Ensure Consumer Information and Choice in the Airline Industry, having steered her agency during the heady early days of high-tech Silicon Valley and through the recent economic slump.Long involved in civic organizations in Silicon Valley, Casto is friendly with most of the movers and shakers of the region, including Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a former mayor of San Jose, whom Casto has known for years.Yet Casto said she is not sure of what she hopes to accomplish as a commission member.She said she first wants to absorb testimony at the public hearings from others in the travel industry. "I would like to listen to everybody and keep an open mind."She added that the commission's work must emphasize the important role that travel agents play in serving the traveling public.Casto is the owner of the largest agency represented on the commission, but she says she started small and knows the challenges that small agencies face. "I understand what they are going through."Casto, a former Philippine Airlines flight attendant, started Casto Travel in 1974 on a shoestring $1,500 investment with a partner whom she later bought out. In 2001, Casto Travel reached $265 million in sales, making it the largest independently owned travel agency in the West.But despite its success, Casto Travel and other larger agencies aren't immune to the challenges of today's industry, she said."Yes, we all thought the airlines would someday go to zero commissions, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a surprise when it happened. Any other business would have had at least 30 days' notice to adjust to such a change, but the frustration is that we had no warning and no time."The 150-employee firm was forced to lay off staff last fall. Yet Casto also expanded last year, opening an office in London. It also has offices in Washington; San Francisco; Columbus, Ohio; and Manila, Philippines, as well as a call center operating in Rapid City, S.D.The company made inroads into the leisure arena, which accounts for 15% of the business, up from 8% historically. Casto said, "We're really starting to see an upswing in leisure."Ted Lawson: Rockefeller's pickBy Michael MilliganCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ted Lawson, owner of National Travel Service here, has carved out a successful niche managing travel for corporations.An agency owner for 25 years, he once served on a panel organized by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) that looked into West Virginia air service issues. He also served as a sales rep for a hotel firm and, for 10 years, as a rep for US Airways.Those are some of the reasons he was Rockefeller's choice to serve on the commission.Taking a broad view of industry issues, Lawson said he doesn't see anything wrong with the airlines developing the Internet as a distribution channel."That's their call," he said. "But by the same token, when they get into a situation where they are combining themselves [and] ... giving preferential treatment to people who use computers vs. people who do not use computers, that is a real question."Lawson believes the commission will help provide valuable insight into airline pricing, the use of the Internet and the role of agents as a "vital element of distribution.""I am interested in hearing the airlines and their points of view with regard to their distribution system," he said. For Lawson, a goal is maintaining a distribution system that "helps inform the consumers better.""I think good consumerism transcends whether it is brick and mortar or the Internet. You can keep the public informed and the public will make choices, and that is how the marketplace works."As for his own choice to become an agent, Lawson recalled that "I used to call on travel agents." He decided to plunge in and buy an agency in 1977 from a bank that was getting out of the business.Lawson changed the agency's business model from leisure to corporate travel management.National Travel Service later expanded, opening offices in Huntington and Morgantown, W.Va., as well as one in Washington.But growth hasn't necessarily insulated it from the problems faced by most agencies.National had to institute service fees after the first airline commission caps and had to raise them when the major airlines reduced commissions to zero.Overall, Lawson believes that instituting fees "has been a very good process. It brought home the reality [of the value of travel agencies] for some of our travel management accounts."Ann Mitchell: A call from LottBy Michael MilliganSTARKVILLE, Miss. -- It isn't every day that you get a call from a senator's office asking you to serve on a national commission. So when a representative for Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called Ann Mitchell, who owns Carlson Wagonlit/Travel First here, her response was, "Say again?"Mitchell, who doesn't know Lott personally, said, "I understand that he had asked some people in different places, and that's how my name popped up."She's moved from puzzlement to optimism in a short time, however, and believes the commission will lead to a straightforward dialogue with the airlines and "give them insight that they didn't have. I don't think they are looking at the complete picture."Mitchell said, "I certainly can't tell them what to do. But what appears to be the quickest way to get an extra dime may not be the best way. They might get a dime today but lose a quarter tomorrow."Mitchell believes that is exactly what the airlines are doing by withholding certain fares from travel agents and consumers who don't shop the Internet."I think that is an unfair disadvantage for customers," she said."Through the years, travel agents have been a true plus for the airline industry," she continued. "We are in business and the airlines are in business. We both need to be successful. We are not an adversary of the airlines, and we would like to do business in an effective way that is good for them, good for us and good for the customer."Mitchell has served on committees before, but nothing this big. Until about a year ago, Mitchell was on Carlson's advisory board, a group of Carlson retailers who advise the agency group's leadership. She also serves on ASTA's supplier council.Like many agents, Mitchell started her working career doing something else, in this case, earning a Ph.D. in administration and working in education."I just kind of wandered into the travel business" after the previous owner of the agency asked her for help."I agreed to do some management consulting for him. I ended up buying 50% of it in 1986. Then five years later, I acquired the rest of it," she said.Starkville had three agencies until a year ago, when one of the agencies merged with Mitchell's."So now there are two agencies still here in town, and we are both still standing and expect to keep standing," Mitchell said.