All it takes is one glance at recent airport security lines to realize that enrollment in the TSA PreCheck program is not growing as fast as had been expected.

But that is not due to a lack of effort on the part of travel agents.

Travel professionals have quietly been on the front lines in encouraging clients to enroll in both the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) PreCheck program and Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Global Entry program, which gives members PreCheck benefits.

In many cases, they have actually been helping clients enroll.

Travel agents have flocked to training webinars about the programs that ASTA has been offering members for the last two years. The most recent drew more than 700 registered participants.

As far as ASTA is concerned, encouraging clients to sign up for PreCheck and Global Entry should be part of a day’s workflow.

“It’s good customer service, making sure your clients catch their flights and aren’t stuck in these huge lines,” said Eben Peck, ASTA’s senior vice president for government and industry affairs. “The goal for our industry should be to get every travel agency client signed up.”

The TSA has engaged the travel trade since it began marketing PreCheck in 2013.

“We made a deliberate decision to include participation in travel trade shows as part of the promotional mix,” said David Lim, a TSA executive adviser, adding that the agency always exhibits at the ASTA and GBTA conferences, among others. “We are educating influencers to push that out to folks as well.”

Lim said the level of engagement in ASTA’s webinar demonstrated just how interested the trade is.

“Travel agents are supposed to be the experts,” Lim said, “and they understand that it’s a product they need to be versed on.”

Some agents have taken it to the next level. Rather than just encouraging clients to sign up, they are bringing CBP to their clients.

Both Protravel and Tzell, for example, have offices that have partnered directly with CBP to enable people to complete their Global Entry enrollment, including the final required interview, at their offices.

Due to high demand, Tzell strives for quarterly visits and said that hundreds of its clients have already completed interviews at its Manhattan office. The program has been so popular that Tzell has a wait list of clients wishing to complete enrollment there rather than at an airport.

That list is likely to grow, since Tzell is finding that the headlines about long airport lines are spurring additional interest.

“They actually help us in gaining further interest from our clients” to enroll in the programs, said Gina Gabbard, vice president of leisure for the Tzell Travel Group.

One Protravel agency managed to get CBP to come to its office in western Michigan. Christie Roels, the manager of Protravel in Grand Rapids, is saving her clients what would be usually a 2- to 3-hour trip each way to either Detroit Metro Airport or Chicago O’Hare.

The office has hosted CBP’s Mobile Enrollment efforts for the past five years, coming in annually and twice in one year because demand was so high. During one visit, 100 people enrolled in Global Entry.

While many of Roels’ clients who participate are corporate, quite a few want to do it for personal travel.

“It’s very popular with clients and their entire families,” Roels said. “It doesn’t help a family if Dad gets through and Mom is stuck with the kids. When you have a family traveling on spring break it’s a pretty powerful thing to have.”

Both Roels and Gabbard cited relationships with CBP officers as the key to being able to offer Mobile Enrollment. Roels said she reached out to someone at Chicago O’Hare to make it happen, and Gabbard said she has “personal contacts with the CBP.”

“Given Tzell’s leadership position in the industry, we have demonstrated to the CBP that our partnership is mutually beneficial,” she said.

In theory, any agency that can guarantee a certain volume of people could request a Mobile Enrollment event from the CBP.

John Wagner, the deputy assistant commissioner in the CBP Office of Field Operations, said, “We will send officers where we can get a group of people together so it’s worth us going out to do it. If we can go enroll for a company or at a convention, we’ll go to them.”

Travel agencies don’t need to bring CBP to their offices to help their clients enroll. For many agents, it is simply part of their process to explain which programs are best suited to their clients. If necessary, they also walk clients through the online enrollment process and help schedule the TSA or CBP interviews around their travel schedules.

“Every single person who comes through this office, every booking, we ask if they have TSA PreCheck or Global Entry,” said Carole Williams, the CEO of Travel 15 in New Jersey. “If they don’t, we suggest they do.”

And because “most of them are regular travelers, 99.9% will do it.”

Williams and her team will also help clients with the online application if they are not computer savvy and want the help.

“We’ll sit with them and navigate through and get the appointment,” she said.

Williams recently helped a client in the Peace Corps who is based in Asia and was having trouble finding a place to do her Global Entry interview. Roels was able to set one up for her in Guam.

Peck and ASTA are advocating for agents to play an even bigger role in the sign-up process. In October 2015, the TSA issued a Request for Proposal to engage the private sector to find solutions and boost marketing efforts for the program, which would include having private sector companies enroll and pre-screen applicants as well as effectively market the PreCheck program.

Peck would like to see those companies work with travel agencies to get their clients signed up and to certify certain travel agencies as PreCheck enrollment locations. To compensate agents, they could be given a fee for every enrollment, “and maybe they’d get some more foot traffic out of that,” he said.

This may be an ideal time for agents to get their clients to commit to the program.

As Tzell noticed, the recent headlines about excruciatingly long security lines may be serving the greater purpose of marketing the programs.

In March, PreCheck average daily enrollment exceeded 8,250 per day, more than double the volume from March 2015, and recently set a record of 10,000 applications in one day. Global Entry applications have also spiked over the last few weeks.

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI