Aug. 29, 2001 – If you're planning to stop by your travel agent's office Thursday to book a trip, pick up tickets or make any other arrangements, don't do it between 1 and 3 p.m.
The doors of most local agencies will be closed. It's part of a "Nationwide Day of Awareness" protest of the recent move by most of the nation's major airlines to drop the cap on domestic ticket commissions to $20 from $50.
Many travel agents on St. Thomas and St. John will be putting those two hours to what they hope is good use — attending a meeting at Caribbeal Travel Agency to discuss ways to mobilize opposition to the cutback.
On St. Croix, travel agents will gather outside Global Tours to discuss their concerns with the news media and anyone else who's interested.
For the Virgin Islands, "This is much more than a travel agency issue," Courtney Gabrielson, secretary-treasurer of Caribbean Travel, said. "It's such a tremendous destination issue. Travel agents in the United States are not going to sell the V.I. when they can make much more money booking travel to other islands."
The airlnes' cap on commissions for "international" travel is $100. But they consider the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to be "domestic" destinations for commission purposes. Thus, agents booking trips to anywhere else in the region would earn five times the commission they would get for travel to the two U.S. possessions.
Gabrielson, like all other members of the American Society of Travel Agents, has received a series of e-mail messages from ASTA urging all U.S. agencies to close their doors from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday to protest the domestic cap cutback.
On the national level, ASTA is protesting what it says is the airlines' intention to put travel agents out of business. In the territory, travel professionals say, that isn't the big issue; what will happen to the flow of tourists into the Virgin Islands is. See the earlier Source story "Travel agents get an incentive to avoid the V.I." The cutback in commissions to agents on the mainland will have a disastrous effect on the territory's economy, they believe.
"It's not about our little agencies having our commissions cut," Gabrielson said. "It's about the livelihood of these islands." And so she has organized a meeting during the two-hour closing to discuss what can be done.
"ASTA sent its memo to all members and invited non-member travel agents to join in as well," she said. "I pretty much called and faxed everybody on St. Thomas and St. John."
That included All Travel, Bittner's Travel Services, Cruises Plus, Discount Travel, Monsanto's Travel Agency, Paradise Travel and World Wide Travel on St. Thomas and At Your Service Travel Agency on St. John.
She also has invited the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, the V.I. Taxi Association and the offices of the governor and the delegate to Congress to send representatives.
On St. Croix, Debby Hodge, manager of Southerland Tours, said that "all travel agents on St. Croix will be closing their doors" for the two hours Thursday, and representatives of many of them will gather outside the Global Tours office during that time to talk to the news media and anyone who is interested in learning more or lending support.
Agencies in addition to Southerland that will close on St. Croix include Global Tours, Regency Travel, Roxanne's Travel, Travel Desk of St. Croix and Tranberg Cruise & Travel.
Personnel at several other agencies contacted by the Source on St. Thomas and St. Croix were unable to provide information as to whether they would participate in the protest.
"We are aware that this will not bring back the loss in commission, but it's about the service and the unbiased information" that travel agents provide to consumers, Hodge said. "This will not only affect us as travel agents, but it will have a great impact on the economy of the V.I. and Puerto Rico. Agents located in other geographical areas will sell destinations that pay a higher commission and don't fall under the cap. So you see, this will affect us all."
Derryle Berger, also of Caribbean Travel, noted that "as far as ticketing for outbound passengers, the Virgin Islands is small potatoes. We have to push this from the point of view that it represents a drastic hindrance to the economy of the islands."
"We're talking about more than ASTA solidarity," Gabrielson said. "If travelers stop choosing to vacation in the Virgin Islands, who's going to ride in the taxis? Who's going to buy the jewelry and booze? Who's going to stay at the hotels? Who's going to pay the housekeeping staff at the hotels?"
For Thursday's meeting, she said, she is "asking people to come and show their support, get some media attention, and possibly support some sort of legal action. We can't just sit here and let the airlines keep cutting at us."
She added, "In the end, it's the travelers who get hurt" — because they aren't really given all the information they need to make an informed choice.
ASTA has urged its members and other travel agents to use the two hours on Thursday "to engage in political and communications actions about airlines' abuse of market power and the consequences for the consumer."
Richard M. Copland, ASTA president, called travel agents "the last remnant of consumer protection the traveler has." In an e-mail message to society members, he said the airlines "want to deny consumers access to the last unbiased source of travel information — travel agents! They feel if travelers are forced to call them directly or shop via the web, their costs will go down. We know the truth. Consumers will pay more … consumers will have less information and fewer choices."
Copland said what widespread participation in the protest nationwide will accomplish is that "the media, our customers, our good supplier friends, our employees and our communities will understand at last that without a travel agent, you're on your own."
Gabrielson said she knows that local airline managers are sympathetic, "but they don't have the ear of the powers that be. There's nothing that they can do."
Berger said she is not aware of any organized lobbying efforts in the past on behalf of the Virgin Islands with regard to the domestic versus international status of the territory for ticketing purposes. If the airlines would reclassifiy the islands as international destinations, "That would solve the problem as far as commissions for inbound travel," she said.
The practice of considering the V.I. international is an arbitrary one on the airlines' part when it serves their interests, she said. "Any time you call an airline and ask for ticket information about travel to the Virgin Islands, they immediately tell you, 'Let me transfer you to the international section,'" she said.