Thanks to the efforts of ASTA and media relations teams at major consortia, the presence of agents and agency networks in consumer media articles has been steadily on the rise over the last few years, a trend most say is unlikely to stop.

"We can feel the momentum building," said Erika Richter, director of communications for ASTA. "We're flipping the script and changing the tone of the conversation, because, now more than ever, the consumer needs to know about the humble travel agent, the truest advocate a traveler could ever have."

According to Richter, the number of mentions the Society has generated in mainstream consumer media -- ranging from USA Today to the Boston Globe to the New York Times -- has risen steadily from last year to this year. In 2016, there were 17. In 2017, as of mid-April, ASTA mentions had risen to nearly 30.

Last year, the Society began ramping up its consumer awareness initiatives, said president and CEO Zane Kerby. Exposure to consumer media was also given a kick-start, thanks to funding from ASTA's budget and the Chapter Presidents Council.

"Success breeds success," Kerby said. "The more we get our names out there, the more [we] become known as a thought leader in the travel industry."

Jay Ellenby, ASTA's chairman and the president of Safe Harbors Business Travel in Bel Air, Md., credited the ASTA board and staff with creating a strategy to increase consumer awareness.

To Ellenby, consumer awareness is an important piece of ASTA's mission, right alongside advocacy. While business models have changed and more agents are shifting to home-based businesses, keeping agents in front of consumers is key.

"There is so much conversation taking place in today's market with travelers that the importance of travel agents has never been stronger," Ellenby said.

To help agents' visibility in the future, he said, they should share stories, including with their peers on social media, so they reach their friends, family, clients and potential clients. Richter is also collecting agents' stories about assisting clients as well as a list of agents with specialties who are willing to speak with the press.

"The more visible we become in the mainstream, the more inquiries I receive, the more stories we land," she said. "It all goes hand in hand. I want to totally immerse myself in the ASTA membership, all 9,000-plus members, so when a reporter calls and needs an expert agent to talk about [some topic], I know exactly who they need to talk to."

Consortia are also at work to spread the message of agents' value. At Virtuoso, for example, Terrie Hansen, senior vice president of marketing, said, "Travel advisers present a better way to plan and book travel, and the media is taking notice."

Consumer awareness has been a core goal of Virtuoso for years. In the past five years, mentions have been on the uptick. The consortium has seen articles that mention the network increase from 1,148 in 2016 to 3,869 so far this year.

That has likely been aided by consumer media presence at Virtuoso Travel Week, which was rebranded from Travel Mart in 2012 with an eye toward attracting more consumer press. In 2012, 10 members of the consumer media attended; last year there were 70.

"Journalists who attend Virtuoso Travel Week say the power of relationships and the travel adviser's role in delivering a valued service really comes alive for them there," Hansen said.

Virtuoso also places its agents in front of the consumer press when reporters are looking for experts to comment on some aspect of travel. In 2016, Hansen said, nearly 300 advisers were promoted to the media.

Travel Leaders Group takes a similar tactic in presenting its agents to the press as experts on any given topic, said Steve Loucks, outgoing chief communications officer. In 2016, more than 6,700 stories included Travel Leaders Group. Loucks estimated that the same coverage via advertising would have cost in excess of $6.2 million.

Travel Leaders Group has put more than 150 agents through extensive media training, he said. Agents are also regularly provided with talking points -- whether it's about a terrorist incident, a natural disaster or some other issue -- that boil down to three key points, one of which is an agent's value to a traveler.

"Ultimately," Loucks said, "it's all about getting the hearts and minds of the traveling public, and while online travel has been kind of the media darling for a long time, we are seeing a lot more consumer media coming around to the point of view that it helps to have someone in your corner, a real, live human being. And for us at Travel Leaders Group, it's all about linking those reporters with a qualified agent who can assist them with their news story."

Conde Nast Traveler has long used agents as sources for destination information, according to senior editor Paul Brady.

"Lately we've been including more and more recommendations of specialists as sidebar information to articles," he said, citing a recent article on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in the May issue.

"Readers come to us not just for inspiration but also practical advice on how to make extraordinary trips happen, and putting them in touch with the right travel specialist is one way to do that," Brady said.

Kendra Thornton, president of Royal Travel & Tours, is comfortable working with the media as an agent, thanks in part to her background: She was previously the director of corporate communications at Orbitz and owned her own PR firm.

"Reach out to your local media or bloggers to offer yourself as a travel source when they are working on stories," she said. "Or even better, send them your own story ideas. Just remember that media work on fast deadlines, so you need to be responsive or you may miss out. And don't be afraid to share ideas. When consumers see your name in print, it's an immediate endorsement, and people will be more likely to contact you for help on their next vacation."

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