David Harris: Stronger together

David Harris has served as CEO of Ensemble since March 2019.

As a second generation agency owner who has passed on the family business to a third generation, and with over 11 years of involvement at a board level with Ensemble, I have learned firsthand the importance of involvement in public affairs.

Without a voice in governmental process, the resulting legislation and regulations can have a significantly adverse impact on travel professionals and millions of travelers.

It's no exaggeration to say that without effective advocacy at all levels of government, not only would our industry be at risk, but that risk would extend to the health of the global economy. We're part of an industry that generates more than $2.5 trillion and is one of the nation's leading employers, supporting more than 15 million jobs. Travel and tourism is a vital economic sector that our government must support and not hinder.

As CEO of Ensemble Travel Group, representing more than 700 agency locations in the U.S. and Canada, I have gained even further experience with the role advocacy must play in ensuring the industry's economic vitality year-round. I'd like to share some of my observations.

In today's polarized environment, executives and business leaders of industries from auto manufacturers to healthcare are working overtime to ensure they are prepared, informed and united to respond to the many issues that have the potential to cripple their respective sectors. Sometimes our interests overlap, and we can lobby in a coalition; other times, we compete with them for the attention of lawmakers. Effective advocacy has perhaps never been more relevant and important than it is right now as we, and they, simultaneously address many critical issues, including the impact of Covid-19, climate change and political payback.

I believe we are well-positioned to have positive influence on these issues, thanks to a strong network of organizations that represent various verticals within our industry, from airlines to cruise lines to hotel companies and tour operators Not only is the travel industry one of the largest in the world, but the people we serve  travelers  constitute one of the broadest consumer bases.

And when it comes to advocating for travel agencies, it's no exaggeration to state that, thanks to ASTA's year-round lobbying efforts, it has been able to respond quickly and efficiently to many of the existential challenges in recent months. These include threats that have the potential to eliminate jobs, destroy businesses and impact travelers in the U.S and abroad.

Similarly, in Canada, the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies has increased its advocacy efforts as potential threats have evolved, lobbying for important refinements and support for the industry.

With the emergence of Covid-19, ASTA was well positioned to respond to the panic, uncertainty and miscommunication that emerged in the early days of the pandemic. And it has tirelessly continued its critical work to ensure that travel advisors and agency businesses will continue to be included in government relief efforts.

There are also several situations on the state level where ASTA's industry advocacy has played a vital role. Last year, it was California's Assembly Bill 5 legislation, in which ASTA succeeded in changing language that would have required travel advisors working as independent contractors to become full-time employees or terminate their businesses.

And ASTA mobilized immediately on behalf of the 8,700 New Yorkers who work at travel agencies, their clients and partners to oppose the Trump administration's targeting of the state's "trusted traveler" programs, including Global Entry, in what was essentially political payback.

Having weathered 9/11, SARS, H1N1 and a global financial crisis, our industry knows how crises can have a long-lasting and detrimental impact. That experience drives the need to get ahead of the messaging with facts and information to enable travelers to make informed decisions while also ensuring an effective industry and government response.

One reason the industry's advocates have been succeeding in their efforts is that they have quantified the industry's impact on the global economy. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), this includes supporting:

• 330 million jobs globally.

• 1 in 10 jobs and 1 in 4 of all new jobs created in the last five years.

• 10.3% of the global economy ($8.9 trillion), with 3.5% travel and tourism GDP growth vs. 2.5% real economy GDP growth.

The impact of Covid-19 to the travel industry in 2020 is currently projected to result in:

• 100.8 million job losses, a 31% reduction from the 2019 workforce.

• Travel and tourism GDP down $2.7 trillion from 2019, a 30% reduction.

• The global impact of Covid-19 to travel and tourism is five times the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis.

• The global unemployment rate of travel and tourism will increase global unemployment overall by 2.9%.

When I was first appointed as CEO of Ensemble, I wanted to not just talk about how important industry advocacy is to me but to actually demonstrate our commitment to it. To that end, we entered into a partnership in 2019 to elevate Ensemble to Diamond Level status within the ASTA Proud Partner program.

In support of ASTA's mission to give travel advisors the voice and support needed to navigate and prosper in an ever-changing industry, Ensemble feels it's critical to focus on providing the benefits of advocacy to all of our business stakeholders: members, suppliers, consumers and the industry in general. We are proud of ASTA's growth and are cognizant of everything this organization does in the areas of education, regulatory intelligence, best business practices and supplier insights.

They have made it easy for you to become an industry advocate: Simply go to the ASTA online advocacy portal, fill in a few blanks and with a click you'll make your voice heard in Washington.

At the global level, we're encouraged to see the industrywide response to Covid-19 being led by the WTTC, which has laid out new guidelines for Safe & Seamless Travel, including testing, tracing and following medical evidence to ensure people can enjoy travel safely in the "new normal."

The creation of a global coalition is critical for the resumption of a secure end-to-end traveler experience. This coalition will require meaningful participation from each vertical within our industry and from those involved with our industry.

While many of us get caught up in the daily responsibilities and activities of our jobs and lives, I invite us all to think about the importance of advocacy and how we can strengthen and support each other and our industry.

It requires participation and selfless contribution at a time such as this; apathy is not an option. I hope you, too, will consider becoming more involved in whatever ways you can, whether it's participating in committees or legislative days or attending national or local chapter events.

Together, we are a strong and powerful voice, and we must always be ready to use it to protect our industry, our companies and our employees.

As U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow is fond of saying, if you don't have a seat at the table, you're on the menu.


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