“They need to go where the bucks are”: Agents speak out in wake of ACTA’s Virtuoso deal

“They need to go where the bucks are”: Agents on ACTA partnership

This story originally ran in the April 18, 2019 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

TORONTO — The original announcement about ACTA’s new Consortium Partnership with Virtuoso was a complete bungle, and a misunderstanding that the deal was ‘exclusive’ (it wasn’t) initially drew howls of outrage.

But while some agents raised an eyebrow at the Virtuoso partnership, many acknowledge that ACTA needs to bring in money. If anyone knows how important it is to survive in tough times and find new revenue streams, it’s travel agents. 

When Virtuoso first announced the partnership as an ‘exclusive’, competing retail groups including consortia and host agencies were furious, questioning ACTA’s mandate and their own membership.

Things calmed down somewhat when ACTA issued an explanation, and an apology for the confusion, in the wake of the Virtuoso announcement. “There is not and never will be exclusivity in the program. Any prior statements claiming so were not accurate or approved by ACTA,” said ACTA Board Chair Mary Jane Hiebert.

She added: “Although newly formed and still being finalized, the Consortia program is equally available to all ACTA members. ACTA would welcome discussions with all interested parties.”

Hiebert’s statement was a follow up to one issued by ACTA President Wendy Paradis: “ACTA would like to clarify that we do not promote one travel agency organization over another and we do not have an exclusivity agreement with any one Travel Agency, Chain, Consortia or Host Agency that impedes other travel agency organizations from working with us in a similar capacity.”

The gate was opened and now everyone has to be allowed in. So will there be any takers? ACTA’s explanation and apology soothed some ruffled feathers, but for some it won’t be enough. Others were still positive. “ACTA is an industry-led organization that advocates on behalf of all of us,” says Christine James, VP Canada, TL Network. “TL Network has a great working relationship with ACTA and our advisors are members. The more advisors associated with the organization, the stronger we all are as a whole, working together in the best interests of the retail travel sector. The support of ACTA is something we all believe in and something we all need.”

As part of the Virtuoso agreement, Virtuoso’s 185 Canadian travel agency locations will receive an annual 30% rebate, shouldered by Virtuoso, on their ACTA membership, up to $750. ACTA will also provide Virtuoso members with a 30% discount on the price of Certified Travel Counselor and Certified Travel Manager registration fees.

All the heated debate surrounding the Consortium Partnership could even drive up demand for more of the $5,000 partnerships, because no big retail group wants to be outdone by a competitor, especially one as high profile as luxury behemoth Virtuoso, now with $2 billion in sales in Canada and climbing.

Flemming Friisdahl, Founder of The Travel Agent Next Door, says: “The reality is that ACTA is a not-for-profit organization, however it still needs to find ways of raising funds to sustain itself. I feel to have this program is not an issue [but] I think the way they have launched it seems odd and a lot to be desired in the order they did it. They should have put the program together, then put it on their site and pushed it with everyone and THEN have found their first organization to launch it with. The way it came around was 100% backwards and very poorly executed.”

Friisdahl adds: “It does come back to all agents should be part of ACTA and then there would be no requirements for ACTA to work with supplier or programs like this to raise funds. I am not sure why all agents don’t support ACTA even if they do not agree with everything ACTA does, it is important we have one voice. I have to say the ACTA Board and ACTA President Wendy Paradis certainly are willing to listen and pick up the phone and this is very important.”

The Consortium Partnership ushers in a new system of 2-tier retail membership in an association that represents all Canadian travel agency members.

The optics aren’t great. But “ACTA like everybody else needs to change its model of business,” says Travel Is owner Ray Warner. Warner was one of the first home-based agents in Nova Scotia, and “stands alone after all of these years as an independent.” He gave up his ACTA membership years ago but still followed the ACTA-Virtuoso developments. “They need to go where the bucks are … I can’t blame ACTA for changing directions.”

Opening the Consortium Partnership up to all comers creates “one of those situations where everyone is preferred, so really no one is preferred,” says Niche Travel Group owner Faith Sproule in Dartmouth, NS. However, she adds, “I think that [ACTA] had to make these partnerships to stay top of mind and viable.”

ACTA’s high-profile supplier Partnerships are bad enough for many retailers, who years ago fought against allowing suppliers as ACTA members in the first place. ACTA’s supplier Partnerships took those relationships to a new level and stoked long-simmering tensions. And now this Virtuoso partnership crosses over into retail territory.

In the words of one industry insider, “ACTA started down this road about seven years ago, getting cash infusions from companies to be named their ‘exclusive partner’ in various categories. They have signed up an airline, car rental company, cruise line, insurance company … a total conflict of interest as ACTA was supposed to represent agents to governments, regulators and suppliers as needed.”

As the consortiums have risen to have more size and influence, ACTA’s profile and clout at the front-line agent level has dropped, she adds. “However you still need a strong agency association to represent companies to governments and supplier categories as needed, and also to IATA.”

ACTA’s work behind the scenes on behalf of Canadian travel agents runs the gamut, from anti-fraud initiatives that bring together industry stakeholders with the RCMP, to work on the Air Passenger Bill of Rights from a travel agency perspective for submission to the federal government, to consumer media interviews with reporters looking for the travel agent angle.

As a not-for-profit trade association, all of ACTA’s resources go towards supporting its work in advocacy, education and promoting the value of travel agents.

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