Whatever the outcome might be of the 2008 election cycle, both travel agencies and agents will face tough challenges on the local, state and federal levels, Chris Russo, ASTA’s newly elected president and CEO, said in an interview with Travel Agent.
Russo, owner of Travel Partners, Broomfield, CO, sees travel agents and the travel industry confronting a flood of new tax and regulatory proposals that may threaten agents’ legitimate economic interests and stifle the growth of the industry.
“Shortfalls in local, state and federal revenues will encourage legislators to tax the industry. Combating the proposals—often poorly thought out, punitive and discriminatory—will be one of ASTA’s major challenges in the year ahead.”
Succeeding Cheryl Hudak, Russo took office during ASTA’s annual meeting at THETRADESHOW in Orlando. At 42, he is the youngest president in ASTA’s 77-year history and one of the “new breed” of pro-ASTA agents.
A key objective of Russo’s will be to build agency and agent awareness of the challenges ASTA and the industry face and the critical importance of strong representation by ASTA. He notes that in the past 18 months, ASTA has fought back six state legislative/tax challenges. “Traditionally, the travel industry has been an easy target,” he says. “Governments don’t grasp the jobs generated and economic benefits of the travel industry.
“Travel agent support is critical. And I include the independent, career-minded home-based agent in this. Independent agents can be directly impacted by changes in tax policy on all levels. And we need their involvement.” He notes that the newly renamed National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA) will provide new opportunities for independent agents to participate.
ASTA’s grassroots network of 29 nationwide chapters is a vital asset, Russo says. It allows ASTA to muster talented agents and agencies to oppose discriminatory legislation and to have an impact on legislators and Congress.
A former president of ASTA’s Chapter Presidents Council (CPC), Russo sees agents with tremendous power to impact government policy—but only if the agency community is organized and mobilized to respond.
Travel Partners was formed 30 years ago, and Russo has owned it for the past eight years. Agency specializations include honeymoons and Hawaii travel. He estimates annual sales of $6 to $8 million, with 80 percent of sales for leisure travel and 20 percent corporate. He has three websites to promote business, and is a Vacation.com member.
“ASTA had the ability to draw on the resources of outstanding agents in every state and to deliver results,” he says. “But we are going to have to be alert to challenges, and quick to respond. ASTA’s outstanding government and legislative relations staff can’t do the job alone. They have to have grassroots involvement.” He also praises the support of ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Council (CAC), which now includes 24 major agency groups.
While tax issues are real enough, Russo warns that travel agents and the industry will also be impacted by policies and programs at the federal level. This includes the policies of the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, to name a few. A new president and a new Congress will also bear watching.
Russo believes that ASTA must monitor government policies on a day-to-day basis and communicate effectively with member agents. “It’s clear that the airline industry is in crisis and impacts millions of travelers, who are our clients. Airline solvency and security considerations will be a major factor in policy.”
One essential response is for ASTA to work closely with other industry groups to communicate the industry’s viewpoint. “We have to draw on the resources of tour operators, hoteliers, destinations, tourist boards, cruise lines, consumer groups and a host of associations that can work together,” says Russo.
For Russo, the new, streamlined ASTA offers tremendous opportunity for agents and agencies to participate and get involved. It’s also a reason for agents and agencies to join ASTA and to step up to the responsibilities of professional agents. “Among my top priorities will be to expand ASTA’s membership, including Core and Premium members, international members and constructive supplier partnerships,” Russo says. “ASTA is delivering real value.”