David Cogswell | February 09, 2016 11:30 AM ET
National Tour Association: A Glorious Misnomer
The National Tour Association has always been an organization in change. It was born in turmoil. NTA was created out of a struggle for survival for the business of tour operating itself.
It goes back to the late 1940s when Arthur Tauck Sr., the founder of Tauck Tours in 1925, encountered a roadblock when he tried to resume business at the end of World War II after a forced layoff because of the war. An agent of the Interstate Commerce Commission declared that “this whole business [tour operating] is illegal,” based on the fact that it crossed state lines.
Arthur Tauck fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court and eventually won the right for tour operators to pursue their livelihoods and provide guided touring service for travelers.
As part of Tauck’s strategy for fighting the ICC, Tauck decided he needed to band together with others in the nascent tour industry for strength in numbers. So was born the National Tour Brokers Association, which was later renamed the National Tour Association.
The Tauck case, the battle for the right to do business, was its starting point. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. The NTA is no stranger to change. The association thrives on change. Change is what it nourishes itself on.
NTA is always in change. It changes in reaction to events in the industry and the world at large, which seem to be happening faster and more furiously than ever before. But it also changes from within, as part of its inborn growth principle, its ongoing struggle to progress, to build itself and its members into something greater than they were in the past.
That drive to evolve is part of the NTA’s DNA.
The NTA has been the rallying point for 65 years for tour operators in their struggle for survival or success in an industry that is constantly and rapidly changing.
I attended the association’s annual convention in Atlanta last week and experienced the latest incarnation of this ever-changing professional association. NTA’s annual convention is one of its principal activities and probably the most important of many services it provides its membership.
The association today is made up not only of tour operators, of which it has several hundred as members, it is also comprised of associate members that are suppliers to tour operators, including hoteliers and attractions, and a large number of destination marketing organizations.
Through its conference, the association brings together all these various groups within the industry and provides a platform for them to conduct business with each other.
It provides not only a platform upon which they may meet and negotiate, it also provides many mechanisms to facilitate the goal of providing networking, and educational opportunities and to further the objectives of its members to meet and talk business, or just to share observations and practices with colleagues in the industry.
NTA runs a tightly organized and creatively designed conference. It’s a grand production, with multiple stages of activity going on throughout the conference, and many things happening simultaneously.
The association is constantly adding new features to the conference, revising and improving its various functions on various levels, from small technological and procedural improvements, to creating new associations and new objectives within the organization.
The annual conference is also an educational event, with an almost constant series of seminars and educational opportunities. Even the meal functions have an educational and/or entertainment function.
The conference also serves as NTA’s showcase for a presentation of itself, its activities of the past year and its plans for the next. The association is diverse in its functions. It carries on advocacy in Washington. It has groups within itself for members to join further their shared goals such as building business in the Hispanic travel market, or in the faith-based travel market or how to work in the exploding China inbound tourism business. It conducts market research in a number of fields related to the business of its members.
NTA always has many changes to report at its annual convention. There are ongoing changes in the way the association functions. Sometimes the changes don’t work, and the association’s members have shown they will rise up and oppose a change they don’t like. The association’s management hierarchy has proven itself to be flexible and to respond to its membership and backtrack if necessary on a policy that is out of favor. They have had to be flexible. The membership is a lively group.
Even if NTA makes mistakes and has to sometimes backtrack, it refuses to stand still. It seems to go by the George Bernard Shaw principle, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”
NTA has survived, grown and evolved based in a significant part on its flexibility and adaptability. During the first decade of the 21st century, during a period of tumultuous change everywhere, the association felt it needed to redefine itself. It had outgrown its previous self-definition.
It had graduated from national to international. It had expanded beyond being only an organization of tour operators. Its membership represented a much broader section of the travel industry than just tour operators.
The whole industry had been rebelling against the word “tour” for decades because the images associated with the word were not resonating positively in the marketplace. All these changes converged into an initiative to change the name of the organization to one that would better reflect its new place in the world.
In 2004 that impulse culminated with the association’s volunteer leadership instituting a name change. The new name would be CrossSphere. It had been suggested by a marketing firm that specialized in re-branding. But the membership never warmed up to the name. A rebellion that ignited within the organization reached critical mass and finally succeeded in nullifying the name change.
Then for a while the association tried using only the acronym NTA and not identifying it with the words “National Tour Association.” The theory was that it was like IBM. An acronym does not have to be identified with words. But IBM is IBM. Everyone who needs to know what it is knows, and as to the rest, IBM doesn’t care. But for an organization that is still trying to introduce itself to new people, a wordless acronym is missing an opportunity.
Eventually the name “National Tour Association” was revived. And anyway, the feeling about the word “tour” is also evolving. In the age of experiential travel, the word “tour” is passing back into favor.
But by returning to the earlier name the members did not reject the progress and evolution of the association. Instead the words have had to stretch to fit the new reality of the association.
The National Tour Association is no longer limited by those words. The association has now redefined itself as the international association for packaged travel. And it is succeeding very well on its new path.
It is building its international membership impressively year by year. This year there were 33 countries represented at the conference, five more than last year. It has truly graduated from national to international.
Of 1,500 attendees this year, only 322 were tour operators. So it is not an association only for tour operators. And though the word “tour” is still present in the name, the association is explicitly not just about the escorted tour business. It goes by the much broader definition of “packaged travel,” which is defined as any kind of travel service that involves putting two or more elements together.
Tour operators, whether offering guided tours or just packaging a hotel with an airline ticket, are at the center of the travel industry, with their tentacles going out in all directions. They connect with the suppliers and the destinations on one hand and with the travel agents and the public on the other.
That defines the National Tour Association today. It is now international. It’s concerned with all aspects of packaged travel.
And yes, it is still an association. The word still applies. It’s a vibrant and changing organization. Very much alive.
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