Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

ASTA's top priority remains getting as much relief as possible for its members, the community of travel agencies that has been so hard-hit by the pandemic.

"Every meeting we have, there's a lot of understanding, there's a lot of sympathy from Congress," said Genevieve Strand, ASTA's director of advocacy.

Every week, Strand said, the Society arranges some eight to 10 formal calls with lawmakers and their staffers, but it is also in contact with dozens of offices on a daily basis pleading agencies' cases.

The travel agency community is far from the only business sector lawmakers are hearing from, but Strand said she believes the message about why the community has been so devastated by the pandemic -- and why it will take longer to recover than other industries, based on when advisors are most typically paid for their work -- is being better understood as time goes on.

"I think there's an understanding that we're sort of uniquely impacted," she said.

That impact is large: According to recent ASTA surveys, the average travel agency's income was down 82% in 2020 compared with 2019.

Even with previous rounds of federal relief, more assistance is still needed. ASTA has four main asks for future relief:

• A $9.3 billion travel agency grant program, based on projected revenue loss in the second through fourth quarter of 2021.
• Expanded eligibility in the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program, including travel agencies who promote, plan and book travel to attractions and events.
• Making agencies eligible to receive PPP loans of 3.5 times their monthly payroll, compared with 2.5 times.
• Support any efforts to mitigate the impact of Canada's decision to suspend cruise operations in its waters through February 2022.

The relief bill lawmakers are currently considering is a little different than past ones. Democrats are using a process called "budget reconciliation" to enable them to circumvent the need for 60 votes in the Senate, Strand said. It also means that everything in the bill has to meet certain criteria, so navigating it is different compared with a typical bill.

"The messaging still says the same and the asks stay the same, but the way some of these things fit into the bigger picture is a little different under this process," she said.

Right now, the goal is to have the relief bill on President Joe Biden's desk by March 14, according to what ASTA has heard from House and Senate leadership.

Meanwhile, the Society has also been vocal in calling for greater clarity on government restrictions on travel, especially after the announcement that international travelers incoming to the U.S. have to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test.

"Overwhelmingly, what I've been hearing from members is the restrictions have just had a really chilling effect on their business," Strand said. "Whether clients are concerned about the extra hassle of figuring out testing while they're abroad, or concerns about what happens if they have a [positive] test or they can't get a test and they're stuck abroad, we've definitely heard from members that they are losing business because of this."

ASTA has petitioned the CDC for clearer mandates. Strand said ASTA understands the need for public health requirements, but the Society is primarily seeking "clarity and consistency." 

The Society is also pushing the CDC on a timeline for reopening. 

"They keep adding all of these restrictions based on the conditions deteriorating, so our question for them was, as conditions start improving, when do we get to remove some of these? What's the marker?" Strand said. 

That kind of knowledge -- evidence-based guidelines -- would be helpful for advisors to better plan and anticipate when travel might begin to return to more typical volumes.

Liability protection from Covid-related lawsuits is also on the Society's docket. ASTA has concerns that a return to normal travel levels will be impacted if businesses aren't protected; while it's a bigger issue for corporate agencies, Strand said, liability protection could also be extended to leisure agencies with regard to their travelers, depending on how broadly it was written.

That is less likely with a Democratic Congress, she said, but ASTA still hopes a liability shield could be put into place. The last large-scale liability shield was put in place after 9/11, Strand said.

As for ASTA's asks of the travel agency community, Strand hopes those who aren't members will join. The Society also wants everyone to use its grassroots portal, asta.org/advocacy, to send messages to lawmakers pushing help for travel agencies.

"It makes all the difference to be hearing directly from those constituents, those voters, and not just hearing from trade association folks like me," Strand said.

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