Become a citizen lobbyist for travel agents

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Eben PeckA while back, I was asked by a travel agency owner to tell him the single most important step he could take in order to help ASTA's advocacy efforts. My answer? "Get to know your congressman and state legislators." When it comes to the day-to-day work of government relations, particularly for a national trade association such as ASTA, the old adage "all politics is local" is absolutely true.

I could talk all day about how travel agents can contribute to ASTA's government relations work, but there's a fundamental question that needs to be answered first: Why should you care?

Let me suggest three reasons you should care about government affairs.

1) The government affects your business, for better or for worse.

Even if you don't follow politics, you've probably noticed that the past few years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of major initiatives undertaken by the federal government. Some of them have been quite popular: the "cash for clunkers" program or extended unemployment benefits and tax cuts, for example.

Others, such as the stimulus package, health care reform, bank bailouts and government intervention in the domestic auto industry, have been highly controversial.

The common thread running through these issues is major involvement by the federal government in the day-to-day operations of businesses. This influence is manifested through the tax system and through regulations by the Departments of Transportation (DOT) and Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and others, and it shows no sign of slowing, especially on issues that don't require legislation from the gridlocked Congress. If you run a business, you will be affected by these changes if you haven't been already.

2) The government is paying increased attention to the travel and tourism industry.

Reflecting a belated recognition of the potential for travel to stimulate local economies and create jobs, government involvement in the travel business has seen a significant uptick in the past few years.

In April, Congress moved with lightning speed to undo air traffic controller furloughs, which threatened widespread flight delays, and it continues to threaten action to streamline our nation's cumbersome aviation security system.

Further, Congress looks likely to at least attempt a once-in-a-generation overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, which could mean good things (facilitation of international visitors to the U.S.) or bad things (systems for tracking incoming and outgoing travelers that would add new responsibilities for travel agents) for our industry.

At the same time, the DOT has embarked on a crackdown on codeshare violations by agencies, which will cost our industry hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At the state level, several states are considering overhauls of their tax systems, which often include "broadening the base" of their sales taxes to include service industries like travel or to impose hotel occupancy taxes on the full price paid by consumers for a room, inclusive of agents' fees and markups. Your customers will be looking to you for guidance on these changes, so developing expertise on these issues is a way to add value to the services you provide.

3) While you can't control the outcome, you can have a say in what happens.

Shortly after I began working at ASTA, I attended a fundraiser for a U.S. congressman. I approached the congressman, introduced myself, and told him I worked for ASTA."Travel agents?" he said. "You guys are still around?" Mind you, this was a senior member of the House Aviation Subcommittee.

Similarly, during one of the many state-level fights we've engaged in this year, we were told that a preferential tax rate for travel agents was no longer warranted because our industry "doesn't exist anymore."

One of the lessons I took away from these encounters is that the work of telling our industry's story on Capitol Hill and in the states is too big for one advocate to tackle alone. My hope is that agents will empower themselves to be "citizen lobbyists" who see advocating for their industry as an essential part of running a travel agency.

That might sound daunting, but it shouldn't. There is an organization, I'm happy to report, with 26 chapters across the country, which exists solely to defend and enhance the travel agency industry.

If you're not a member, please join ASTA. In addition to the many other benefits of ASTA membership -- creating credibility with consumers, increasing your client base, strengthening your network -- you'll have access to a range of government affairs resources so you can keep up with what's going on and become that citizen lobbyist.

Working in such a highly regulated industry, we face a choice: Get engaged with our federal and state representatives and help shape the policies that impact us, or sit back and hope for the best. Joining ASTA and getting engaged will help achieve our industry's public policy priorities. This will mean not only a stronger travel industry but more safe, affordable and enjoyable travel experiences for the American public.

Eben Peck is ASTA's vice president for government affairs. Contact him at [email protected].

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