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Abramoff Politics and the Travel Industry

Washington, DC. May 16th, 2006 ---- There is a misguided conception in honest America that Travel Trade Associations in DC are there for them, the membership. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2006 they are there to provide a conduit for political patronage, bribes, and as a parking space for lobbyists leaving, or entering the political arena.

The recent World Travel Summit should have shown that there was so much Right Wing Republican Ass Kissing that some wondered if a proposal of marriage was in order to maintain dignity. The Travel Industry Association of America, TIA, and the Marriott Connection for the NeoCon Republicans made sure a faltering, disgraced administration was given complete access to the platform, and no space given to the key tourism States, or Democratic speakers. Forget the massive looming issues facing the industry.

Across town the American Society of Travel Agents, their numbers decimated by the more efficient online booking system is another vehicle of Big Business to curry political favors for the elite members, at the expense of the majority. I think all should read this "Open Letter" sent to smaller travel agents:

"An open letter to all travel agents

Whether you are an ASTA member or not, it is important for you to understand the egregious power consolidation occurring with proposed ASTA governance changes.  Therefore, as a small, specialized travel agency, I felt compelled to comment on ASTA’s proposed Governance Restructuring Plan since I strongly believe it represents a significant erosion of members’ (and, in general, all travel agents) power and rights to participate and be represented in high level and important industry decision making.  Although this issue has been strongly debated within ASTA, it bears additional insight that the entire agency community is entitled.

On October 20, 2004, I was party to a key lobbying effort and discussion between agency leaders, various ASTA officials and members, and a State legislator regarding a proposed Seller of Travel law that took place in Harrisburg, PA.  The proposed law is and was seriously flawed.

ASTA officials and members did not, in my opinion, vociferously and decisively object to the onerous and flawed law inside the legislative meeting (as I and a few others did).  I believe ASTA’s voice was quite timid on the whole matter, except for some “window dressing” press releases issued afterwards that suggested an opposition to the law.  On the day prior, by his own non-confidential admission to me, I learned that ASTA’s SR. VP of Legal Affairs, Paul Ruden, had hand delivered to the State legislator’s campaign event a SabrePAC campaign finance check on behalf of ASTA Corporate Advisory Council (CAC) member and Sabre-owned Travelocity, which runs a major call center in the State of Pennsylvania.  I realized the timidity in the meeting was probably a function of the campaign finance coziness created the day before.  Within a matter of a few weeks, the proposed PA Seller of Travel provision had been rewritten to reflect an added series of highly specific exemptions that would have effectively covered CAC members, large online and mega-travel agencies, and other publicly traded travel corporations. Even in a subsequent legislative meeting in November 2004 when I flat-out asked for a targeted exemption for small and mid-size accredited agencies, there was not a single exemption offered by the State legislator for any other ARC, IATA, or CLIA accredited agency.  In my opinion, ASTA’s Paul Ruden facilitated a targeted exemption effort, through physical involvement in the campaign finance transaction, for a select subset of the ASTA’s membership --- the CAC.  Travelocity is also a key member of a stated ASTA legal affairs partner, the ITSA --- another association known as the Interactive Travel Services Association (ITSA).

In my opinion, ASTA showed its true colors with a “sell out” of small and mid-size members.  Any decisive, broad based support of a hard grassroots fight to kill the legislation on the grounds it was bad for agency business and it was overly burdensome small business regulation crumbled onto the October 19 2004 handshake that may have ensued between Paul Ruden and a PA State Legislator’s campaign staffer.  Ultimately, through a widespread grassroots phone calling effort by small travel agencies, a small group of agencies managed to overshadow both ASTA’s timidity and check-delivering-gall to get the bill frozen in committee.  In my opinion, based on this experience, ASTA does not care enough for its small agency membership, of which I am a member.  That was my experience with ASTA elitism.

This lack of “small fry” care continues with the proposed governance changes.  ASTA’s proposed changes represent a reductionist, pay to play philosophy that effectively further consolidates power to a select few larger, well-financed members with campaign building capabilities and other monetary influence and power (e.g. influencing State and Federal legislation in favor of large agency players such as occurred in Pennsylvania) and away from the egalitarianism of the grassroots Chapters and regular members, in my opinion.  Board of Director candidates will only be drawn from well-capitalized companies who prepare and subsidize their senior officers for just such Board roles.  It is unrealistic to expect small agencies that run on entrepreneurialism and moxie to compete.  Members are also losing their right to directly select qualified, diverse candidates for the executive committee.  Chapter presidents on the board are losing their eligibility to serve on the executive committee.  The executive committee will now be chosen by and from the aforementioned nine (9) elected, well-heeled directors.

Folks, open your eyes to the new reality.  Can you envision a more tightly controlled travel industry association with hardly any egalitarian grassroots, small business leadership, or Chapter-driven personality?   ASTA annual budget and audited financial statements will still remain completely secret from members and harder to pry loose from ASTA’s elite leadership.  How will such absolute, secretive power be wielded in future legislative and industry affairs?  Who will be most represented?  The heck with it...maybe it’s just time to rename the association the American Society of Travel Elites?

Please join me in disgorging ASTA of its elitist attitudes.  Fervently oppose the new governance plan. Call for the immediate release of the budget and financial statements.  If you are an ASTA travel agency member, I ask you to vote AGAINST the ASTA Governance Restructuring Plan.  If you are not an ASTA member, don’t just scoff and ignore the matter...please consider joining the fray and simultaneously calling ASTA leaders to express your outrage over the elite power grab.  Regardless, pass this commentary onto others if power consolidation scares you like it scares me.  If passed, in my opinion, the governance plan will represent a creative, ill-conceived usurpation and consolidation of power that the entire agency industry will regret allowing.

Alan Fiermonte"

Welcome to the corrupt world of Washington, Republican politics. The Democrats were bad, but today it's somewhere between a Banana Republic and a the domain of local War Lords. The big travel companies have joined Big Oil, and Big Pharma and decided to buy influence, and screw the small guy.

Well in the global travel and tourism industry it's the thousands of small guys who make up the bulk of the action, and whilst the big corporations have a choke hold in the United States, they are not like Pharma, Energy or any other monolithic corporation for they depend on a matrix of franchisees, subcontractors and independent parts that make their Juggernaut work. Screw the foundations and the skyscraper will collapse.

As travel and tourism takes a bigger stake in the economic health and welfare of America it is time for the media to scrutinize the industry, and the appointed, often self appointed leaders of these trade associations, State and local organizations. The travel press depend on their advertising and keep mum, preferring an invite to their conferences to speaking out about bribery and corruption. That is why the new dynamic of the Internet can both hurt small travel operators, and help them at the same time. For the huge numbers of travelers who are surfing the Internet to find their flight, cruise or vacation are also reading articles such as this one. It's time to create a force in Washington to promote travel and tourism companies, large and small. And free the Associations of corrupt practices.

You either work for the Members or for the Warden!

(We thank eTurbo News/eTn newswire for circulating the letter from Mr. Fiermonte.)



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