The ranks of independent agents will increase in part due to the economic downturn as storefront agencies close and partly due to the changing economics of the travel agency distribution channel, Scott Koepf, president of the 2,500 member National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA) believes.
"NACTA’s mission is to empower the career independent agent— home-based or not, affiliated with a host or not,” Koepf said in an interview with Travel Agent. "We deliver professional education, training, networking and support that makes a difference to the independent agent."
A 25-year industry veteran, Koepf prefers using the term independent rather than home-based, and is a long-standing champion of the independent agents role in travel distribution. “The current downturn is testing agencies and agents. And to be frank testing many suppliers and hosts,” he said. “My expectation is that we will see fewer mid-ranged brick and mortar agencies with consolidation among the largest firms and the emergence of many more small independent agents – including some small focused networks of affiliated agents. The survivors will be well managed and financed, nimble and effective.”
Koepf wants NACTA to be positioned to benefit from the ongoing changes, and to build strong relations with its independent agent membership, host agencies and industry suppliers. “We have entered an new era for the independent agents," he said. "At first it was a battle for recognition and legitimacy that home based agents were a viable marketing force. Now it has moved to finding innovative ways to strengthen and support the independent agent and help them realize their full potential.”
This was in part the motive behind last years name change and rebranding of NACTA from the old National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents to “Career” travel agents. “NACTA’s focus is on the career agent - someone who wants to build a profitable business and is making the investment needed for success by expanding their knowledge and expertise," Koepf said. "In short the professional agent.”
Koepf also sees changes in how suppliers view independent agents. "NACTA serves three key audiences: independent agents, host agencies and suppliers," he said ."Our sense is that suppliers need help reaching and communicating with independents and that NACTA can offer practical help. We are seeing more and more suppliers devising programs specifically for independent agents – targeting them as cost effective marketing and sales agents.
"But many suppliers are still trying to determine how to reach and work with the independent agents to deliver sales," Koepf argues. "Marketing managers who want to expand sales should be taking a new look at independent agents as a viable force. They will be well rewarded by working with the individual agent as well as agencies."
A key element in NACTA’s strategy is developing programs that are valuable to independent agent members of NACTA. One noteworthy NACTA initiative is the Mastermind program that is a unique blend of education and training and networking with peers. It creates an ongoing dialogue between independent agents. “We are going to continue to promote the Mastermind program and encourage agents to sign on,” Koepf said.
The Mastermind program allows small groups of four to eight agents to link up for training, networking and mutual interactive support in operations, sales, marketing and decision-making. Koepf envisions a nationwide network of Mastermind groups linking agents to other agents and helping each other to achieve goals.
As with NACTA’ 25 Chapters, Koepf is seeking out Mastermind leaders around whom groups can be found. “Mastermind has the potential to end the isolation of independent agents and help build productive supplier relations and to complement our Chapter networks,” he said.
Another innovation is the launch of a dynamic new NACTA website that has both public and NACTA agents-only sections. Koepf sees the new agent-only site as a central gateway for agents to tap into all of NACTA’s resources.
For the balance of 2009 NACTA will continue its aggressive program. This includes fam trips, seminars at sea, webinars and special events. The new site ties together the complete NACTA program, including tools such as an online calendar. The new web site also has sections focused on the needs and resources of the 70 plus host agencies and 60 suppliers who participate and support NACTA.
Koepf also wants to expand NACTA’s 25 chapters and its membership with serious travel agents who want quality support and encouragement from a solid organization that reflects the brightest and the best in the industry. “We don’t compete with host agencies but rather support the host and their member agents,”
Another initiative is NACTA’s outreach to the industry. in June NACTA had a joint program with the National Tour Association (NTA) to help build agents awareness of he importance of tour sales. This includes the first of NACTA’s "destinationals." Koepf was to develop a strong destination familiarization capability that will expose NACTA agents to popular and off beat U.S. destinations to spark sales. Currently, 22 percent of NACTA travel agents sell tours, and about 370 NTA tour operators offers agents commissionable packages.
Koepf will also be a keynote speaker for the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA) Travel Expo 2009. The Travel Expo & Educational Conference will be held November 14-16, 2009, at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Reno, NV.
The Expo includes co-locating with the NTA’s convention thus offering members of both associations unprecedented opportunities for business growth, networking, and access to new market opportunities.
“We are going to make it easier and affordable for suppliers to reach out and communicate with independent agents," said Koepf. "At the same time, we are going to provide our members with access to quality supplier programs.”
Koepf believes that NACTA is positioned to help many agents regardless of business models. This includes independent contractors, outside sales agents, cruise- and tour-oriented agents, group- oriented travel professionals and traditional ARC-appointed travel agencies that provide services and support to such professionals. NACTA itself was established in 1986 and is an affiliate of ASTA.
NACTA’s program runs the gamut of services from a new membership kit and lapel pin to access to NACTA’s Seminars at Sea, Land Fams, Destinationals, host and supplier webinars, the popular NACTA AgentDigest, special pricing and discounts including travel insurance from Travel Insured and access to CLIA and ASTA programs. NACTA annual dues are $95 (plus $50 for first year activation).
A gifted speaker and mentor to agents, Koepf’s goal is to make NACTA members the beneficiaries of the finest learning experiences available and to be a true support group that helps agents build their businesses and professional skills.
NACTA is for travel agents serious about their careers and who can see beyond the current economic downturn to long-term professional growth opportunities, Koepf believes. “NACTA membership rewards agents who make a true commitment of time and talent, a commitment to sharing ideas and experience and a commitment to professional growth,” he said.
Read more on