Mark Pestronk
Mark Pestronk

Q: Every week or so, I receive a brochure in the mail from my university alumni association offering an expensive tour or cruise with a professor or other expert as a guide or lecturer. Nothing in the brochure states that any entity other than the alumni association is the operator or seller until you get to the last brochure panel. There, I see a disclaimer in small print stating that "ABC Alumni Tours Inc. and XYZ University Alumni Association are not responsible ..." or something similar. Does advertising this way make the alumni association a seller of travel within the meaning of the various state seller of travel registration laws, or are nonprofits somehow exempt from registration? If not, and if ABC Alumni Tours is a registered seller of travel, does the alumni association also have to register, or is one registrant per trip sufficient?

A: Because the alumni association is soliciting customers for tours in its own name, it certainly is a seller of travel within the definition of the five state seller of travel registration laws. Those states are California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa and Washington.

There is no exemption for nonprofits in any of those laws. Nor does naming a registered seller in fine print at the end of the brochure make the nonprofit exempt.

Further, the fact that a registered seller of travel is involved as the actual tour operator does not exempt the seller, which is clearly the alumni association. This structure is the same as when your agency sells a tour operated by a tour operator, and you already know that you aren't exempt just because the tour operator may be registered.

Finally, the fact that sign-ups are limited to a specific group (graduates of XYZ University) does not make the alumni association exempt, either. If you offer travel to consumers in the registration states, you need to register, even if your offer is made to a limited number of consumers.

In fact, a few alumni associations are registered. See, for example. So why haven't most alumni associations been forced to register? It isn't that they fly below the radar, as you can be sure that almost every staff member of every seller of travel office in the five states has a college degree and receives these kinds of brochures.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the state agencies that require registration have not made most alumni associations register as sellers of travel. The only reason I can think of is that there seems to be an unwritten rule that, if the seller is not a travel company, it does not have to register.

However, nonprofits should not rely on unwritten rules. When retail agencies or tour operators ask for my advice about whether the nonprofit that they are selling through needs to register, I advise that the only way around having to register is this: Brochures, website and all other solicitation material and all oral offers must make very clear that the agency or the operator -- and not the nonprofit -- is the seller.

For example, the Emory University Alumni Association travel webpage states, in its very first sentence, "To provide you with the best possible travel experience, the Emory Travel Program works only with reputable tour operators. If you decide to visit one of our travel partners' websites and book an independent program directly, be sure to indicate that you are with the Emory Travel Program."

Similarly, in a mailed brochure for one trip, the operator's name should appear on the first panel, and the panel should prominently state that the named operator is the seller of travel.

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