Almost 150 travel agents went to Capitol Hill May 8 for ASTA's annual Legislative Day event, more than four times as many as in 2014, when it launched. Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, chair of ASTA's Corporate Advisory Council and co-chair of its Government & Political Affairs Committee, talked to news editor Johanna Jainchill about ASTA's voice finally being heard on the Hill.
Q: What is the difference this year, when there are 147 participants here, compared with the 35 that came in 2014
A: There's a great sense of pride seeing how far ASTA has come. There's been a total turnaround -- we call it the "new ASTA." It's not your grandmother's ASTA anymore. It's been profitable for four years after not being profitable for so long. It's run like a business, and we have leaders across all segments of our industry -- from one-person travel firms to major consortia -- acting in unison and speaking in one voice. By having a strong PAC, you are able to actually communicate your issues. You start to have a bit of a voice at the table and have meetings with senators and congresspeople.
The first year they said, "Who are you and why are you here?" And we still get a couple of people who say, "Travel agents are still around?" And we say, "Yes, we exist, and we're thriving, actually, and here's why." Sheer volume and numbers matter, but relationships matter more, so when you go back to the Hill year after year to the same chief of staff, they recognize you. And you start to have a relationship and rapport, you're a trusted resource for information. You start to see traction on issues, and you connect the dots.
Q: ASTA's PAC raised 147% more money in 2017, $230,392, than it did four years ago. Does this make a big difference?
A: We're being taken more seriously because we have more funds we're able to contribute. And we're bipartisan: It doesn't matter if it's a Democrat or Republican, it doesn't matter if it's the House or the Senate. Travel doesn't care which side of the aisle you're on. These are issues that touch all consumers. We are able to spend a little money, whether it's a dinner or coffee or supporting someone in a local state or city and show we have a travel company there. And they really want to listen. We didn't have the resources to do that before. I had the opportunity to have meetings this week with three senators and two representatives and several chiefs of staffs. That's incredibly powerful.
Q: What are the 2019 Legislative Day goals? How many agents do you want?
A: Our goal for this year's Legislative Day was 100 and our stretch goal was 125, and we blew it out of the water. But you don't want just new faces, you want repeat individuals coming back. To me it's more important to get a broad cross section of the industry: the ma and pa shop, the individual contractor, the new millennial, the retired military, the large agency host. You want to see a broad geographic cross section. It's not just sheer numbers, quite honestly. We started by asking how to get dollars and people. Now we have the opportunity to set different goals, and that's where you can start saying, "Do we have representatives from everyone on Travel Weekly's Power List? Do we have the Travel & Leisure Top 50 advisers?" We have the opportunity to go to major travel suppliers and say, "Are you supporting?" This is important to everybody in the industry, and we have to speak in a unified voice. It's not just a number for Legislative Day.
Q: ASTA's interests often diverge from those of the airlines. Can the industry really speak in one voice?
A: I think we're better at that than we used to be. Two years ago at the ASTA annual convention, we had executives from the three major airlines, something that 10 years ago no one would have ever thought you'd see at an ASTA event. Are we always going to agree on everything? No. But in business you compromise. I think it's looking to recognize that we've all chosen to do business together. There are going to be many channels in the industry, but there is still a huge commitment to travel advisers.