The travel agency industry faces critical challenges— including the ongoing clash with United Airlines over credit card policies— that will place a premium on effective grass roots agent response, Chris Russo, president and chair of ASTA said in an interview with Travel Agent.
“In 20 years as a professional agent I have never seen a greater need for rank and file agents to get involved with ASTA and help us address bread and butter issues that impact our businesses,” Russo said. “And I include all non-ASTA members who must work with us on issues such as United.”
Russo, now completing his first year as ASTA’s elected president and chair and widely expected to be reelected for another term, cited the critical importance of agents contacting their representatives in Congress to protest United’s policy. “This issue is not settled and we have to keep the pressure on Congress,” he said.
While hearings may be possible, Russo says that the most effective tool for agents are face to face meting with Senators and Representatives this month while they are in their home districts. ASTA will offer a webinar for agents to show them how to get appointments and present their case.
While the United credit card issue has a priority, Russo is also concerned with new tax proposals such as a sales tax increase in New York City. “ The entire travel industry faces a challenge from local, state and federal tax hikes that can undercut the industry’s growth and viability,” he said.
Russo, owner of Denver-based Travel Partners, said that he expected accelerated consolidation among travel agencies in the year ahead and that, in his personal judgment, a 30 to 50 percent year-over-year decline in business is not out of the question. “If this is the case we will see extensive changes in the agency distribution system,” Russo said.
A recent ASTA webinar on mergers and acquisitions sponsored by ASTA was the best attended in ASTA’s history, he noted. “Smart agents are getting ahead of the curve,” Russo said, noting that there was widespread uncertainty about the Obama Administration's health care plan and its impact on small business owners. “Many agents are on pins and needles on health care issues.”
While Russo urges greater participation in grassroots legislative issues, he also urges travel agents to encourage younger people to enter the travel industry. “ASTA and its Young Professional’s Society are moving to help encourage talented people to enter the industry and I urge widespread support,” he said. ASTA will soon launch a page on Facebook to help generate interest.
Russo believes ASTA membership by agencies of all sizes remains critical if the agency industry is to survive and prosper. He sees agents not only as a vital source of support but of intelligence on local and state issues and urges agents to advise ASTA if they become aware of issues that should be addressed. “ASTA remains an indispensable resource for the agency community," he said.