Elevating NACTA’s Membership: One-on-One with Ann van Leeuwen
In the last several years, the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA) has expanded its chapters and membership, moved from being a primarily cruise-centric organization to one whose travel consultants sell a broader portfolio of products, and strengthened the criteria for membership.
We sat down with Ann van Leeuwen, president of the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA), at the conclusion of ASTA’s Destination Expo (ADE) in Marrakech to discuss how the association has changed and evolved over the last few years. Van Leeuwen, whose 27-year travel industry career includes positions at both Holland America Line and Virtuoso, joined NACTA, ASTA’s sister organization, as vice president in 2011 and was promoted to president in September 2012.
TravelPulse: In your view, how successful was this year’s ASTA ADE?
Ann van Leeuwen: There was a wow factor here in Marrakech. I’ve heard several of my travel consultants – we had 51 travel consultants attending – who said they would come back and bring their clients. With the industry being comprised of 71 percent women, there’s a comfort level traveling together. ADEs are held in unique locations where women can travel and learn together while exploring unique areas that maybe they wouldn’t travel to on an individual basis. ASTA provides a safe, secure and exciting way to experience different cultures.
Another thing that is unique about ADE is its in-depth immersion into the culture, cuisine and culture of a given country. So are not only are participants seeing and experiencing the country, they’re learning about it from Moroccans, who actually put on the workshops.
TP: How has NACTA changed and evolved under your leadership?
AvL: We wanted to ensure the professionalism of the entire membership, and by elevating the criteria to join we’re really protected the current membership. We wanted to separate the sellers of travel from the takers of travel and thereby raise the level of professionalism.
Any travel consultant interested in joining NACTA now needs to have errors and omissions insurance, either on their own or through their host agency. They also have to have proof that they have a valid booking ID code – either CLIA, IATAN, ARC or TRUE.
We also expanded our supplier portfolio. NACTA, in its original days, was very cruise-centric. As the membership became more educated and sophisticated there was a need for them to sell more unique destinations and products when putting together sophisticated trips for their clients.
The third thing is we’ve grown our chapter system. We now have 45 chapters across the U.S. and our goal is to have 53 by the end of this year.
TP: What are some of the benefits to agents participating in NACTA chapters?
AvL: Independent contractors who work virtually have a place to go to learn from one another in their own city. They’re able to share supplier and product information while communicating information on a local level.
We’ve also boosted the quality of NACTA chapters. One of the reasons the Baton Rouge, La., chapter came in was because they felt our benefits were a very good fit for them, and they liked the fact that we are a network for any career travel consultant, not just an independent travel consultants. For instance, we’re getting managers, owners, front employees and fully independent contractors representing the Louisiana chapter. They meet monthly and are coming together in a significant turnout.
TP: How much interest is NACTA’s 2015 annual conference in Kona, Hawaii, generating from members?
AvL: We have 270 registered so far – with 138 having registered at NACTA’s 2014 annual conference in Phoenix.
The reason why I think it’s doing very well is because we have a fantastic relationship with the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. They really are invested in our market and in our segment of the business. They have been a very strong partner with us, as has Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which has the first right of refusal to host our meetings and events. This will be our third year using a Starwood property, with the 2015 conference being held at the Sheraton Kona, Hawaii Resort and Spa from Nov. 8 to 12. .
I had heard from several of our travel consultants that they’d never been to Kona, so one of the reasons we selected it was because we wanted them to understand all it has to offer.
Another reason why this meeting is doing well is NACTA’s strong relationship with the island operators who will be present to educate members on the activities and excursions that Kona has to offer. After the conference, we’ll offer unique educational trips at reduced rates to the other islands, including Maui, Kauai and Molokai.
TP: Did the initiative to stop substitute the term “travel consultants” for “home-based agents” take root under your leadership?
AvL: I don’t know that I can take complete credit for that. However, it’s something I firmly believe in. It doesn’t matter where you work, it matters that you’re good in what you do when it comes to servicing your client. So I felt I it was important to get rid of the home-based label.
We use the term travel consultants. The membership voted on whether they wanted to be referred to as travel professionals, travel advisors or travel consultants. Travel consultants won by a landslide.
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