Obstacles to travel addressed at ASTA Corporate Advisory Council Forum

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Kathy Bedell, senior vice president, BCD Travel, at ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Council Forum 2020.
Kathy Bedell, senior vice president, BCD Travel, at ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Council Forum 2020. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jamie Biesiada

WASHINGTON -- The travel industry is facing a number of headwinds going forward, what with ongoing geopolitical issues, the coronavirus epidemic and the unprecedented grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.

Those, among other challenges, were top of mind for agency owners and executives attending ASTA's annual Corporate Advisory Council Forum, held earlier this month at the Washington Marriott at Metro Center here.

The forum, now in its second year, gives members a chance to talk about the ever-changing industry, said Kathy Bedell, senior vice president of BCD Travel.

"It is so critical that we collaborate and align," Bedell said.

Communication with clients, either leisure or corporate, is key when some kind of outside event occurs that could impact travel, executives agreed. Those outside forces could be anything from geopolitical turmoil to coronavirus.

Nexion Travel Group president Jackie Friedman said it's crucial for Nexion to give its advisors information while keeping in mind that they are still independent contractors.

"It's so important to give them the information, give them the facts, point them in the right direction, but not tell them exactly what to do," she said.

On the leisure side of things, she added, advisors should consider their longer-term relationship with their client. An advisor might want them to take that trip for their own bottom line, but the client's needs are the most important.

Evan Konwiser, vice president of product strategy and marketing, American Express Global Business Travel, at ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Council Forum 2020.
Evan Konwiser, vice president of product strategy and marketing, American Express Global Business Travel, at ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Council Forum 2020. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jamie Biesiada

When geopolitical turmoil hits, travel is one of the first expenses corporations tend to address, said Evan Konwiser, vice president of product strategy and marketing for American Express Global Business Travel (GBT). As a travel management company, it is incumbent upon GBT to be flexible when travel budgets decrease. But at the same time, GBT is also a business.

"Right now, obviously, Chinese travel is heavily, heavily impacted, and we see it starting to have an impact across the globe," Konwiser said. "So how do we, as an operation, have the nimbleness and flexibility such that we can support our clients, but also protect our business?"

The forum also addressed the likelihood that legislation -- like states seeking to change worker classification laws -- will impact the industry. An audience poll found that the vast majority, 97%, believed there would be impacts on agencies.

That is a constant concern, said Betsy Geiser, vice president of Uniglobe Travel Center. The issue crops up frequently; last year, ASTA scored a big win in exempting the agency community from new regulations in California, and other states are already considering similar proposals. Geiser also pointed to taxation issues, like proposals to charge sales tax on gross sales, not commissions.

The grounding of Boeing's 737 Max planes was another topic of discussion. Bedell asked how the agency community should address that issue with clients.

Anthony Raider, senior manager of distribution strategy for American Airlines, said the carrier has been educating the agency community with information it has received. No one can know when the planes will come online again, but it will be important to clearly communicate to customers when it is the aircraft they are flying on, he said. American will offer waivers for those uncomfortable flying on the Max.

Some clients will be reluctant to fly on the planes, Friedman predicted, and advisors should disclose that information.

"It's kind of like [coronavirus]," said Michael Dixon, president and managing partner of Travelink. "You don't know if you want it to come up [in talking to clients] or not. I am pretty convinced that whenever that plane flies it will be the safest plane in the air, so don't worry. We'll figure out what we're going to say to the clients. That's important, but I don't think we need to worry about it."

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