'Back us or be abandoned', online agents tell Abta

'Back us or be abandoned', online agents tell Abta

Travel agents fearful that new European package travel regulations will outlaw their way of working are threatening to quit the association unless it “defends their livelihoods”.

Travel Weekly understands there is growing concern among leading online agents that Abta is not fighting the corner of agency members as the European Commission devises a new Package Travel Directive.

European rules are being revised and although first indications on what is being proposed are not due to be seen until early 2013, agents are worried about the mood music coming from Brussels.

They believe the issue has wide implications for all agents and have accused Abta of siding with its large tour operator members which support a broadening of the rules to capture more agents.

Abta has denied the claim saying it has been lobbying in Europe to protect agents since 2009, when a consultation started on the PTD revision, based on what its members told it. 

Writing on his blog today, Steve Endacott, chief executive of On Holiday Group, accused Abta of not doing enough to fight more responsibilities being heaped on agents following the introduction of Flight-Plus.

“Abta seems to be taking a defeatist attitude and assuming that the Eurocrats have already made up their minds and that there is no point trying to defend the UK’s adoption of Flight-Plus.

“However the OTA and the wider agent community are now mobilising and giving Abta a choice - defend our livelihoods or be abandoned.”

Mark Tanzer, Abta chief executive, responded: “The really key points in relation to PTD are that we maintain the pressure to bring airline holiday sales and click-through arrangements into the scope of the Directive; that we make sure that agents acting as pure retailers of third party packages are not saddled with PTD obligations; and that we make sure that the drafting of the Directive does not compromise our members' agency status. 

“These are the key issues that emerged when we consulted with all of our members - agents, operators and mixed businesses - in 2009 and these are the key points that we have been putting to the Commission since that time.

“We are looking forward to a healthy debate on PTD during the Travel Convention this week, when a range of businesses, including online travel agents, will have the chance to put forward their views, but it is vital that we don’t lose sight of these issues that impact all our members. 

“A real threat of a revised PTD is that the agency model will be compromised; we have put forward a compelling case to the commission to help ensure this does not happen. 

“It is also important that as an industry we put forward a united voice on other critical points raised in discussions in Europe, for example arguing for cooling-off periods to be kept out of the Directive and preserving the right of businesses to surcharge.”

Endacott demanded a one member, one vote referendum on the issue of the association’s stance on the proposed revision to the PTD.

He said he would not give up his 25-year association with Abta without a fight, but added: “I cannot and will not allow the major tour operators to dictate Abta’s position.

“As a minimum I am asking Abta to present all the facts to its full membership ... rather than having such a key issue decided by a board of directors that is very heavily weighted towards the traditional tour operators,” he said.

Geoff Wood, operations director at alpharooms.com, said if Europe gets its way the agency model would be outlawed as agents are saddled with the same responsibilities as operators.

“To manage this liability, agents will need to reduce the range of products they continue to sell. Consumer choice will therefore reduce while prices will increase,” he said.

“To move forward with what Brussels is proposing would mean ignoring the trends in travel purchasing over recent decades. It is more likely that consumers will choose lower prices and buy each element of their holiday from different suppliers. By doing this they will lose the financial protection they currently have.

“We need Abta to champion our cause. If it proves difficult for Abta to provide effective leadership on this issue due to the conflicting interests of their agent and tour operating constituents then we will need to move quickly to establish an alternative, agent focussed, lobby.”

Online agents previously threatened to set up their own lobbying group, touted as a rival to Abta, ahead of the last General Election in 2010 before the UK finalised proposals for Flight-Plus Atol.

A meeting of 16 OTAs and agency groups did happen, organised by Institute of Travel and Tourism chairman Steven Freudmann, but the group quickly fizzled out when agents decided not to join.

It is understood one significant Abta member wrote to Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer and chairman John McEwan last week saying it is considering its position in the organisation.

It has demanded Abta redress what was claimed to be an imbalance on the board to ensure agents, bed banks and dynamic packagers are better represented.

Commenting on the concerns raised by Endacott about the changes to the European PTD and Abta’s role in representing agents, Travel Counsellors chairman David Speakman, said:

“I had been a passionate member of Abta and had served twice on its travel agents council. Travel Counsellors decided to leave Abta as, unlike many other agents, we had the wherewithal to survive outside.”

Speakman, a long-standing critic of the direction Abta has taken, said he started warning as long ago as 2006 that changes the association was bringing in would disenfranchise its agent members.

“Outwardly little seems to have changed, but as I predicted the drumbeat of Abta has changed. It has paid lip-service to its agent members as it dances to the tune of its tour operator masters.

“Its once customer-facing agenda steered by its independent agents for the mutual benefit of all has been replaced by Abta being a political lobbying tool for the larger tour operator members."


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