NTA board says agents are in the slow lane in tour travel

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DENVER -- When the National Tour Association's board of directors gathered here recently, one question stood out as members addressed a long and varied annual meeting agenda.

Just why is it that tour leaders are booking millions of dollars worth of packaged tours directly with NTA members?

Why aren't travel agents sinking their teeth into it? "Agents haven't taken advantage of this market and it's right under their noses," said Scott Hartcorn, vice president of national accounts and industry relations of Seattle-based Global Leisure Travel.

"We're here to satisfy agents' needs, not bypass them," said Hartcorn, whose company owns Sunmakers, Maupintour, Jetset Vacations and other tour companies.

If tour operators and motorcoach companies were offering incentives such as discounted pricing for tour leaders to book directly with them, agents could accuse them of bypassing them, but that is not the case, said board member Keith Griffall, who is also president of Western Leisure Inc. of Salt Lake City.

"It's not a case of bypassing, it's bystanding," said Hank Phillips, NTA's executive director. Although no one in the industry has any measure-ment of just how much business agents are letting pass them by, industry leaders say they are certain it's significant.

Some NTA board members estimate it at 50% of all packaged travel. Other members say it could be more than that, at a time when 88% of NTA tour operators reported they offer commission to agents.

While agents express frustration with the continuing airline commission cuts, many of them are still looking to air travel to reap rewards, Hartcorn said. In the course of the discussion, NTA members theorized about possible reasons and suggested solutions to change the situation.

"There is an awareness that we can sell North America and make a lot of money on it," Hartcorn said. "NTA and its 4,000 members are premier packagers of North America, and travel agents need to know that."

The timing couldn't be better for agents and NTA to form alliances, Phillips said. "The agency community is under duress to diversify and go heavily into leisure, and tour operators are seeing that traditional motorcoach itineraries are not just what they ought to sell, so all of a sudden, one group needs to sell and the other has stuff to sell," he said.

Peter Pantuso, president and chief executive officer of the American Bus Association, said ABA's roughly 800 motorcoach and tour operator members also need to develop a relationship with agents.

"The agents are missing out, but I don't think motorcoach companies are giving them the opportunity to capture their business," Pantuso said. "They haven't gone to agents and shown them what to offer, nor have they devised a commission schedule that works."

ABA needs to educate its members about such opportunities and plans to do just that at the debut of its new Business and Education Conference, Oct. 28 to 31, in Amelia Island, Fla. The conference replaces the former ABA Annual Meeting with a program of training, development, management and leadership information tailored to the needs of independent motorcoach and tour operators.

Additional similar educational opportunities will be available at ABA's annual marketplace Dec. 5 to 10 in Birmingham, Ala., Pantuso said. "We're just developing the educational programming now. We've been trying to wrestle with this for a while," he said.

At the same time, however, ABA knows it has another battle to fight. Some travel agents have a stigmatized view of group travel -- that its guests don't stay at the best hotels, that they are always riding on the bus and that it's a highly structured product, according to ABA.

Many agents and baby boomers associate motor-coach tours with the "fixed-route," long-distance bus trips they took years ago, such as when they traveled home from college for the holidays, an ABA spokeswoman said. Since then, however, many motorcoaches have evolved into bigger, more comfortable vehicles with bigger windows, bathrooms, bars, kitchens and service.

The ABA, which has an "image committee" grappling with how to popularize motorcoach tours, said it wants to emphasize the inherent conveniences of motorcoach tours.

Specifically, this includes: prearranged driving; accommodations; visits to attractions; tickets to entertainment and events; meals, as well as diverse itineraries and destinations.

"The travel agent may be reluctant to put a middle- to upper-income client on a motorcoach trip they perceive as a product that is not upmarket enough," the spokeswoman said. "We are looking to see what ABA can do to educate operators about creative marketing tools and agent commission structures so they can win the confidence of agents as strong travel partners."

NTA's Hartcorn said a top priority is to find ways to show agents how valuable NTA's consumer protection plan is for their clients. "We want agents to realize how easily they can ask operators, 'Are you an NTA member?' It's a seal of approval and will heighten agents' credibility and value," he said.

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