MAST Travel Network is an agency success story. Owned by nearly 200 member agencies and headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, MAST serves members in nine Midwestern states rather than a national market and has remained a powerhouse since its formation in 1967.
“We have a close, productive working relationship with our member agencies and have chosen to remain focused on our region rather than become a national group,” says John Werner, president and COO who has been with MAST for 13 years.
“Our growth has come from our members in sales productivity, in client service quality and from strong relations with suppliers,” Werner told Travel Agent. “We have a small headquarters staff and a strong, knowledgeable board of directors – all active agency owners.”
Currently, MAST’s aggregate sales are estimated at $720 million including both leisure and business travel sales. “MAST membership has proven its value in tough times and good. And we believe that MAST’s programs have proven value.”
“Current trends include group travel that is well ahead of last year. We are also seeing more destination weddings. Our members are booking more honeymoons to non-traditional honeymoon destinations, meaning places like Africa, various island nations in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia,” Werner notes.
“We are seeing more travel to Central and South America. Hawaii is doing well. Mexico is doing better since there is less coverage of the drug violence in the news. More bucket list and life celebration travel is occurring with customer's budgets over $10,000 or $20,000 or more on these kinds of trips depending on how many people are traveling together. And of course, river cruising is doing really well with customer interest and awareness of the value as high as it has ever been,” Werner said.
Despite some economic worries, Werner sees MAST member’s upbeat about the year ahead. “Our members are generally optimistic about 2013. They have been busier this January and February than in past years. Sales are up year over year. The weather has helped. People want to travel and are willing to spend money on it.“
“Sometimes it feels anything can happen without warning and business will fall flat again or worse. I guess that is the general feeling of the country. Is the economy really better? We all think it is, but feel lots of anxiety over it any way. Meeting our growth targets – 5 to 20 percent per year – will provide the proof.”
Major economic issues, such as the impact of sequestration are also a concern. “It seems there are always external factors affecting the travel agency business and they come one right after other. So the impact of the sequestration is yet again, another factor agencies have to deal with by staying informed. They will have to advise their clients appropriately about allowing enough time for airport security delays, customs delays, national park services, and all sorts of conditions that may arise over the next several months.”
Werner and MAST is also watching Obamacare carefully. “The Affordable Health Care Act will not have an impact on small agencies because they have less than 50 employees and will not have to comply with certain components of the law. However, small agencies may be able to participate in state health exchanges and MAST is interested in learning how that plays out and whether there is a supporting role we can play to help our members. “
Concerns with the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) controversial New Distribution Capacity are minimal, Werner says. ”I don't think IATA's new distribution plans are much of a concern for our members. Most of our members book air travel for their customers because they remain full-service agencies but they use all available channels to find air and book air for their customers. This means booking via their GDS, through air consolidators, airline websites, and other air websites. Agencies book through the channel that may pay commission or one in which they can add a markup as well as give their customer the best fares and itinerary. But we are watching any changes carefully.”
Of more immediate concern is the shortage of experienced agents. “Some of our members are looking to hire part time and full time agents. And support help that may only work one day a week to do marketing or bookkeeping. There is a shortage of experienced agents and that situation will become more of an issue down the road. Most MAST members have relationships with one or more independent contractors and continuously look for opportunities in that area.”
Developing new programs that are affordable and deliver value to members remains a challenge. “MAST has quite a few new programs and services this year ranging from web marketing to e-newsletters to custom post cards and e-mail promotions on-demand. We offer our members a rewards – and recognition -program for their participation in our programs. He notes that on average, members can receive a check for over $1,000 to $9,000 as an override bonus each year.
“Our member-only website offers new tools to access and search for information. We also offer flexible ways to participate in our direct mail program which provides target marketing, segmented mailing lists, and the ability to personalize mailing by adding custom text,” Werner says, noting that MAST events such as its annual conference are well attended.
Werner believes that MAST – like other agency consortia – have demonstrated value to participating agents. “ From innovative technology to cost effective marketing, smaller retail agencies are more competitive and deliver better client services due to their affiliation with an agency network.”