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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.