ASTA's Legislative Day takes on urgent tone

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Washington DC Capitol government [Credit: Tupungato/Shutterstock.com]
Advisors will focus much of their energy on ASTA's Legislative Day convincing lawmakers to sign on as co-sponsors of the Securing Access for Venue Equity Act. Photo Credit: Tupungato/Shutterstock.com

Tomorrow, 175 travel advisors from 40 states will spend the day meeting with lawmakers in Washington, seeking targeted Covid-19 relief for the hard-hit agency community at ASTA's annual Legislative Day.

"Our government's response to the pandemic was to discourage, and in some cases even outlaw, travel," ASTA CEO Zane Kerby said at a press conference Tuesday. "Our elected officials have a moral obligation to support travel-reliant businesses until those it has charged with public health at the CDC and State Department lift the warnings and regulations barring travel. Prior to the pandemic, travel advisors had experienced five years of record profits, with 2019 topping all of the charts.

"It's perverse for our government, through its own regulations and warnings, to metaphorically hold our travel industry heads underwater and still ask us to keep breathing," he added. 

Advisors will focus much of their energy convincing legislators to sign on as co-sponsors of a bill, the Securing Access for Venue Equity (Save) Act, that would include travel agencies in the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. That program could provide those eligible with up to $10 million in grants, based on 2019 revenue.

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Coronavirus recovery thus far has been uneven, Kerby said, and for the travel industry, "the pandemic remains akin to a Category 5 hurricane."

While there are "some green shoots" for travel agencies, they are largely in the same place they were last spring, he said. The State Department and the CDC have warnings in place for most international destinations, and while the CDC has released new mask guidance, the CDC's Conditional Sailing Order remains in effect, he said.

He cited three statistics: 82%, the average revenue decline agencies experienced in 2020; 62%, the number of travel advisor jobs lost or furloughed in the past year; and eight, the average number of months after normal travel resumes until agents will see revenue in the form of commission payments from most suppliers.

He did point to one positive number: 44%, or the number of consumers who have indicated they want to work with advisors on future trips, but he said the industry still needs relief to see the crisis through its recovery phase.

Speaking on a panel at the press conference, Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg painted a personal story of how the pandemic affected her agency, Valerie Wilson Travel (VWT).

VWT went into the pandemic debt-free. But with a 30,000-square-foot headquarters in New York, multiple locations around the country and 375 independent contractors and employees, "we couldn't make it," said Wilson-Buttigieg, who is VWT's co-president. "The runway ran out."

VWT was acquired by Frosch International Travel in April. VWT remains an independent brand under the Frosch umbrella.

"This was never our plan," Wilson-Buttigieg said, but it was necessary to survive.

"I'm here today to tell people that our industry needs more help," she said. "We want to pay our employees. We want to have our storefronts. We want to serve. Travel is the most important thing to everybody in this room, and we're missing it. I am so disappointed with our elected officials. They made makeshift plans, one-size-fits-all. This is an industry that is down over 75%. I was down 95% for 10 months."

Wilson-Buttigieg said she hopes lawmakers will hear the travel advisor voices they will meet with tomorrow and step up to provide targeted relief for the agency community.

Legislative Day, ASTA's annual Capitol Hill fly-in, has been held for the past eight years. This year's event is capacity controlled because of the coronavirus.

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