In a year when the American Society of Travel Advisors is ramping up advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill and at the state level, individual members are stepping up to the plate with increased contributions for political candidates who demonstrate support for travel advisor issues.
Local chapters, travel agencies, and individual advisors donated a record $286,635 last year to the American Society of Travel Advisors Political Action Committee, a special fund established in 1979 for campaign contributions on the federal level, according to the PAC’s just-released annual report. The amount exceeded the previous year’s total by over $55,000 and was nearly double the amount collected in 2014.
“What it shows is that our industry is more unified than ever before,” said Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-chair of the society’s government and political affairs committee and co-owner of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York. “What is really gratifying is that the contributions are increasing not just from the big consortiums and travel agencies, but from individual advisors, including those in a new category for independent contractors.”
Among goals of the society is to increase overall donations by 25 percent in 2019 and see more geographic diversity in where the donations are coming from, particularly on the chapter level, she added. Currently the Midwest is the chapter leader, followed by Hawaii, New Jersey, Long Island and San Diego, according to the report. ASTAPAC’s top donor is Matthew Upchurch, president and CEO of Virtuoso who is the only donor in the $25,000 or more tier.
Among travel agencies that are the biggest donors to ASTAPAC is Los Angeles-based TravelStore. According to CEO Osvaldo Ramos, the society deserves support for its advocacy work.
“ASTA does a very good job protecting the rights of our industry,” he said. “There is no other organization that represents us at the government level (federal and state) that works to protect the rights not only of travel agencies and travel advisors, but also consumers’ rights.”
To encourage more donations this year, ASTA is taking both a “grassroots and grasstops approach,” according to Eben Peck, executive vice president of advocacy. These include new monthly training webinars and an in-person training session for chapter presidents “to help them understand the advocacy mission and help communicate the role our political action committee plays in this.”
Others efforts included a new online giving portal, silent auction 5K fun run and a new donor recognition program with special benefits.
The fact that a presidential election is coming up could also be a positive factor this year, Peck said.
In these highly partisan times, ASTA is careful to remain bi-partisan in determining which candidates to support, according to Wilson-Buttigieg.
“We really take the politics out of it,” she said. “We contribute equally to Democrats and Republicans and to senators and congressmen. The importance is to speak in one voice and to have our needs addressed.”
How does ASTA determine which candidates to support? According to the report, determining factors include whether or not the candidate has supported specific proposals or policies advanced by the travel industry. Another factor is whether the candidate serves on or plans to seek appointment to a committee involved with legislation pertinent to the industry.
At the same time that contributions are up, ASTA is anticipating record participation in its annual Legislative Day program, scheduled for June 1–5 this year in Washington, D.C. Along with various meetings and events, the program includes congressional appointments on June 4 where members meet with their representatives on Capitol Hill.
“In the past, it would draw 30 or 40 people, but it grows every year and this year we could see 150 to 200 people,” said Wilson- Buttigieg, who is chairing the Legislative Day program. “Our goal this year is to get representation from all 50 states and so we’re reaching out everywhere we can. We’re not just looking at where agencies are headquartered, but where advisors are actually based, as so many are working from home.”
To encourage greater diversity this year, ASTA is offering to offset the travel costs of new participants coming from locations far from the Washington, D.C. area, she said.
Among pertinent legislation before Congress this year is HR2515, known as the Travel Agent Retail Fairness Act. If passed, it would direct the Department of Labor to make travel agencies exempt from certain labor standards such as overtime pay requirements pertaining to retail businesses.
“Another issue we’re concerned with is travel to Cuba,” Wilson-Buttigieg said. “Everyone needs to put politics aside and look at why people are banned from visiting certain countries. We need to take the politics out of travel.”
Making a Difference
Creating awareness among legislators, who usually know little about how travel agencies operate, is a key reason why participation in activities like Legislative Day is important, according to Chris Seddelmeyer, the other co-chair of the Government & Political Affairs Committee and owner of Seddelmeyer Travel Concepts in Lima, Ohio.
A home-based advisor, Seddelmeyer believes it’s important for travel advisors to realize that they can make a difference, no matter where they are based or the size of their agency or resources.
“A lot of legislators don’t understand your side of the story and meeting face-to-face with them can make a big difference,” she said. “When you can communicated with them about why a certain bill is harmful, they may say ‘I never thought about it that way.’”
She learned this first-hand about ten years ago when the Ohio state legislature was considering imposing a state sales tax on travel agency revenue. It’s an issue that crops up continually in various states, including several this year where ASTA has launched grassroots efforts to oppose.
“I was asked by ASTA to go down to Columbus and testify before the Ways and Means Committee,” Seddelmeyer said. “The experience really impressed me. I saw what government action means on a personal level.”