What 'political visibility' means for travel agents

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Eben PeckASTA strives to educate the general public about the value travel professionals provide consumers; see recent "CBS This Morning" and Woman's Day pieces as examples. It is critical that we do the same with the elected representatives of the general public on Capitol Hill, and one of the best parts of my job is representing travel agents in this regard.

There are a lot of preconceived notions out there about how Congress operates, few of them positive. But the reality is more mundane: Members of Congress, though frequent flyers, are for the most part just like the "man on the street" when it comes to how much they know about our industry.

That's why it's so important that we be represented, that we have what's called "political visibility," since these folks have a lot more power over our industry than the man on the street does.

In an attempt to give you a sense of how this works, below is an imagined conversation with "Congressman X" from California that incorporates many of the things I hear again and again when I'm on the Hill representing ASTA members.

This conversation could take place in a congressional office building or at a fundraiser (we are represented at the latter thanks to the generosity of our members in supporting our political action committee, ASTAPAC). But the format tends to be the same: You have a limited window to tell your story or make your "ask," and the conversation moves on. After introducing myself, things often go like this:

Congressman X: Travel agents? You guys are still around?

ASTA: Yes, sir, alive and well! By last count, there were almost 8,000 travel agency businesses in all 50 states employing about 105,000 people, including 12,828 in your state alone. The aggregate annual revenue realized by these businesses is $17.5 billion, and they generate $5.5 billion in payroll every year.

The myth of the travel agent as a dying breed is just that -- a myth.

Congressman X: So everything hasn't moved online?

ASTA: Well, ASTA represents travel agents of all shapes and sizes, but the vast majority of our members are small businesses. Have there been changes in our industry in the past 20 years? Of course. But travel agents have fully embraced new travel distribution technology and now serve consumers through both specialized professional tools not publicly available as well as Internet-based tools.

Congressman X: Whenever my wife needs to fly to D.C., she just books it herself on the Internet.

ASTA: I suspect she's using an online travel agency (OTA), which is most definitely a travel agent. Taken together, OTA and brick-and-mortar travel agents sold $86 billion worth of air travel in 2011, or 64% of the market.

But agents are about much more than air. They arrange more than 144 million trips annually, representing $141 billion in total sales. In fact, agents are the primary distributors of cruises and tours, selling $9.6 billion in cruises (68% of all cruises sold) and $7.8 billion worth of tour packages (67%).

Those are big numbers. Travel agents help to move people across the country and around the world, and in the process keep our economy moving.

Congressman X: So it sounds like consumers have a good reason to use a travel agent, even though they can do it themselves online.

ASTA: They do. While the role of travel agents has changed over the decades, they serve a vital public purpose and fulfill a range of needs for the traveling public. That's why consumers use, and will continue to use, travel agents for professional help on how to create the most value from their limited travel dollars.

And don't forget that travel agencies also work with corporations and governmental organizations, managing employee travel spending, reducing costs and negotiating savings that would otherwise not exist. You might stop by ABC Travel in your district to see all this firsthand. I'm happy to arrange a visit.

Congressman X: Sounds like a plan. Thank you!

ASTA: Thank you!

The goal of such meetings is pretty simple: Tell our industry's story and connect it to the congressman's district ("all politics is local," after all). When the time comes to present a legislative "ask" to the congressman's office -- to vote against this bill, co-sponsor this one, etc. -- at least we will have laid the groundwork of a basic education about how our industry works.

This is not glamorous work, and it takes a lot of time and sustained effort. Every time a friendly member of Congress retires or a staff person leaves the Hill, we have to start afresh.

But it is absolutely essential to our industry and, thanks to our members' investment in their trade association, ASTA is the only organization doing it. To go unrepresented in Congress is to invite disaster at a time when legislators will be considering issues of huge impact to travel agents, such as airline ancillary fees and distribution models, cruise ship safety, independent contractor regulations and aviation security reform.

As the old Washington saying goes, "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

None of this is to imply that ASTA headquarters can do this work alone. As discussed in a previous column [ASTA on the Issues: "Become a citizen lobbyist for travel agents," June 17], while most agents don't have time to fly to Washington several times a year, my hope is that they will become "citizen lobbyists" who see advocating for their industry as an essential part of running a travel agency.

In that regard, it is only through ASTA membership will you have access to the latest news and alerts on government affairs and be empowered to help us meet our mission to defend and promote the independent travel distribution channel at all levels of government.

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

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