Leading the no-tax lobby

or the past several weeks, Sylvia MacVettie has been a busy woman, working long days and long nights. The excessive hours cannot be attributed directly to her agency, Travel Network in New Port Richey, Fla., although that business certainly is hopping.

The truth is, she's up to her ears in taxes -- but not the taxes we all pay on April 15.

Sylvia MacVettie, seated before a mural of a tropical locale at her agency in New Port Richey, Fla., takes a break from her schedule as agency owner and ASTA chapter president. MacVettie is a first-term ASTA chapter president, responsible for Florida, which is at the front line of a legislative issue that could potentially inspire other states.

A bill pending in the state Legislature would alter the state constitution and revamp Florida's sales tax laws, reducing the tax from 6% to 4.5%. Few are against lower taxes, but in this case, as maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot used to say, the devil is in the details.

To reduce the tax, the state is considering expanding the tax base to include a slew of items and services that weren't levied before, such as, you guessed it: the commissions agents earn from suppliers and the service fees they charge their clients.

The state Senate already has approved its version of the measure. Now it heads to the House. If the House does the same, the proposal would be presented to voters as a referendum in November.

Now, this isn't the first time Florida has considered taxing agent sales.

In 1987, the last time the state revamped the sales taxes, travel agents were able to secure an exemption, arguing double taxation.

This time, with the economy mired in recession and tourism the lifeblood for states like Florida, soft, bolstering tax revenue has become a very attractive option.

So now, travel agents like MacVettie have to work to secure an exemption again.

To make matters worse, time isn't exactly on their side. Agents have until March before the Legislature adjourns.

And that's why MacVettie is so busy these days. Between organizing agent lobbying efforts, sending out newsletters, talking with the media, meeting with ASTA members from around the state, and, oh yes, selling travel, her days are pretty full.

The good news is the ASTA chapter has had some success. The Florida Senate recently approved a bill that would grant travel agents an exemption from the sales tax. The bill now moves on to the House.

Additionally, MacVettie said, Gov. Jeb Bush has voiced opposition to the tax plan. "The governor is not happy at all," MacVettie said. "He doesn't feel that the timing is right."

MacVettie believes that with the governor publicly coming out against the sales tax initiative, it likely will die a quiet death in the House.

That is possible, but MacVettie said agents in Florida are not taking any chances.

The tax proposal has some strong backers, such as the American Association of Retired Persons, which reportedly has some 2 million members in Florida alone.

"So I am continuing to encourage my chapter to meet with their House representatives," MacVettie said. "They need to be educated about what travel agents are all about, what we do and how we get paid."

So while MacVettie said she's breathing a sigh of relief with the Senate victory, she and her 439 ASTA chapter members aren't yet ready to start celebrating.

Indeed, MacVettie said her chapter is fully prepared to hire a lobbyist, if necessary, to assure the exemption remains intact.

"Even if [the tax bill] dies this year, it may be back," MacVettie said.

-- Michael Milligan

The Energizer agent

Helping agents fight City Hall while keeping her own agency profitable is all part of a very long day's work for Sylvia MacVettie, owner of Travel Network in New Port Richey, Fla.

But somehow she is able to keep it all together through a combination of drive, optimism and a sense of humor.

"I work about 12 hours a day, but I am trying to take two days [Wednesday and Thursday] off per week," MacVettie said.

Her plans didn't quite work out the week we caught up with her. She was in the office on a Wednesday.

Among other things, she had to participate in a conference call later in the day with her ASTA chapter's six-member board of directors to discuss an edition of the monthly newsletter and to plan for a chapter meeting in Orlando next month. ASTA president Richard Copland is slated to attend.

MacVettie said her days usually are spent juggling her ASTA responsibilities and handling the finances and marketing for Travel Network, which is located inside a Super Wal-Mart store. The agency is open seven days a week.

MacVettie's husband, Vince, who recently suffered a stroke, has owned travel agencies since 1967.

Sylvia MacVettie "married into the travel business" in 1995, she said, and it was her husband who got her involved with ASTA.

She served as treasurer of the Florida chapter and in 2000 was elected president.

MacVettie said her biggest challenge is getting local ASTA members more involved with the chapter.

"I am really trying to drum that up. We really need more participation," she said.

"A lot of people are not as optimistic about the industry as I am. This industry is going to be around, and we are going to make it.

"We are going to have some good years. We are going to have some lean years. But this industry isn't going away."

Marc My Words

The Right Hotel

Is it easy for consumers to book a hotel stay? Yes.

Is it easy for them to book the right hotel? Not at all.

In fact, the general public seems so concerned about whether a hotel will be right for them that, according to a recent Travel Industry Association of America poll, they cited "previous experience with a hotel" as the No. 1 reason for choosing a certain property.

Better to stay with the known, even if it may not be the best choice. At least it will be a predictable choice.

Marc Mancini.In these times of drive vacations, booking hotels has become a solid source of income for agencies.

And if you can find the best lodging for your clients, it will provide one more reason for them to come to you for other products and services when our environment normalizes.

Here are some steps to help you provide expert advice on accommodations:

• Familiarize yourself with the profiles of major hotel chains.
You should be aware, for instance, that JW Marriott or Park Hyatt is more upscale and oriented to the business customer than other hotels in each chain.

• Ask your client about lodging preferences.
Very often, agents fail to ask important questions about what kinds of accommodations the client prefers, even though this is one of the most critical elements of a memorable vacation.

• Determine where your client prefers to stay.
Some people like hotels in quiet residential areas, and others love to be where the action is. Knowing where a client prefers to stay will help you narrow the options available.

• Do your research before recommending.
You'll want to check availability before you get a client excited about a property that's fully booked.

• Consult a good hotel reference source.
The Official Hotel Guide has a dependable, 10-level rating system. The Star Service's detailed and unbiased analyses of worldwide lodging is accurate and entertaining, as well.

• Recommend only one property.
Use benefits language to explain why your hotel selection fits the client's needs. But have a backup ready if they want further options.

Marc Mancini is a professor of travel at West Los Angeles College.

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