Since 2017, Eben Peck has served as Executive Vice President, Advocacy at the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), where he is responsible for ASTA’s work to advocate for the travel agency community at all levels of government, within the travel industry and before the traveling public. This includes management of ASTA’s Government Affairs, Industry Affairs, Communications, Research and Legal functions, and ranges from day-to-day association management to federal/state government affairs to interaction with national and trade media to liaising with travel suppliers and industry groups to content for ASTA’s annual conference and other events.
From 2012 to 2017, he served as ASTA’s Vice President, Government Affairs and Senior Vice President, Government & Public Affairs, with a heavy focus on the Society’s core advocacy functions – federal and state lobbying, regulatory compliance and ASTA’s political action committee. Accomplishments of note during this period include legislative and regulatory “wins” that saved the travel agency industry an estimated $563 million in new taxes, fees and other costs and more than quadrupling annual PAC receipts to over $230,000.
Peck joined ASTA after seven years with the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), where he served most recently as Senior Director, Government Affairs. At CPB, Peck was the primary liaison between the Corporation and the federal government, responsible for CPB’s appropriations requests; managing relationships with government relations offices of other national public broadcasting organizations; and briefing the CPB Board of Directors on federal developments.
Prior to joining CPB, Eben served for five years on the staff of U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), acting as the Senator’s policy advisor and representative for several legislative issues, including transportation, homeland security, labor and appropriations.
He graduated from Colby College in Waterville, Maine with a BA in History in 1998 and in 2009 earned his Master of Arts in Government degree from the Johns Hopkins University, with his thesis on Congressional earmarks earning honors as well as the William F. Clinger, Jr., Award for Assessing a Topic in Institutional or Representative Government Using Original Research and Displaying Superior Writing.
He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Colette, daughter Lucy and son Stuart.
Travel Research Online (TRO): Hi Eben. Thanks for joining us. How are you?
Eben Peck (EP): I’m great, thank you! We’re busy preparing for the 2019 ASTA Global Convention, August 25-27 in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
TRO: You’ve been with ASTA for about a decade, now serving as an Executive Vice President, Advocacy. What made you want to join the ASTA team back in 2012?
EP: I was looking for something new after seven years of Capitol Hill, a chance to be exposed to new policy issues. My last job was centered around one issue – securing federal funding for public broadcasting. My work at ASTA couldn’t be more different – dealing with federal, state, even local governments, on issues ranging from airline consumer protection to tax issues to independent contractor regulations to Cuba travel. It is a challenge, but one I’m honored to tackle on behalf of our 10,000 members. I’m also an avid traveler and a firm believer in the power of travel to increase cross-cultural understanding and personal fulfillment.
TRO: It seems you you’ve worked with governments most of your career. What drew you to be a liaison between businesses and government?
EP: My role at ASTA has been the first time I’ve had to represent private businesses before the government. It is both challenging and fulfilling work. How our industry operates today is not well known – most policymakers have an outdated notion of what our members do. So there is a lot of education to be done. Beyond that, I try to be a problem solver. Our members are trying to serve their clients, make sure they have the best possible travel experience and save them time and money in the process. Once the education part is out of the way, I find most policymakers are willing to help solve our public policy problems, especially in cases where our local members, and their constituents, get engaged.
TRO: To advocate for people, you are representing their side of an issue that needs to be resolved. Can you give us a few examples of what you do in that process of advocacy for travel advisors?
EP: I’ll use the example of the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill, a federal law setting aviation policy for the federal government for the next five years. There were provisions in early drafts of the bill that would have required travel advisors to make an additional seven consumer disclosures to clients buying air tickets, even if they were bought over the phone or in person. This would have made the ticket-buying process clunky, to put it mildly. In the course of an extensive education process, more than 40 separate Congressional meetings, a few things became clear. First, these new disclosures were all trying to address an airline bad behavior (ancillary fees, consumer complaints, etc.) and second, that policymakers assumed that everyone buys their tickets online. At the end of the day, we were able to work through these issues and the final bill signed by President Trump contained no new disclosures, saving our industry almost $30 million a year in training, reprogramming, talk time and opportunity costs.
TRO: Where do you like to go when you want to relax, any favorite destinations?
EP: My in-laws have a house on the West Coast of Michigan that we spend a lot of time at. I’m also hoping to someday recreate two epic vacations from before we had kids – our honeymoon in the Oaxaca region of Mexico and a trip to South Africa, including a week on safari and a week in the Cape Town area.
TRO: The ASTA Global Convention is just around the corner, August 25th – 27th in Fort Lauderdale, FL. What can advisors look forward to this year?
EP: I hope your readers are planning to join us! We’ve put together a tremendous program… some highlights: I’m looking forward to hearing from Chris Nassetta of Hilton, to our cruise line CEO panel featuring Arnold Donald of Carnival Corporation, Michael Bayley of Royal Caribbean, Andy Stuart of Norwegian Cruise Lines and Gianni Onorato of MSC. Randi Zuckerberg should be amazing – I’ve heard great things. We’re also doing our Entrepreneur of the Year “Shark Tank”-style session and have breakout sessions on media training, social media and several “live” Verified Travel Advisor courses on marketing, law and responsible travel. Please join us!
TRO: Teaching advisors about the finer points of the industry (responsibilities, rights, current news, etc.) seems a great move to get advisors involved in advocacy. How important do think it is that agents take part in the process?
EP: It is critically important. There are so many government touch-points for our industry – DOT, State Department, TSA, the IRS, etc. Collectively, we can sit back and hope for the best or we can engage and make sure government rules and regulations work for us and our clients. There’s an old Washington saying: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Given that choice, we want to be at the table and the more advisors that join ASTA, the louder our voice can be.
TRO: AB 5 ASTA is one of the entities currently challenging a bill in California. This bill, California AB 5, would take away the ability of travel advisors to be independent, instead forcing them to become employees. Are you part of the talks regarding this? If so, can you tell us how you are approaching it?
EP: We are heavily engaged. In fact, we’re spending more time on this than we have on any other state legislative issue since I got here in 2012. I think the bottom line is that – in our industry at least – the system is working and the ability for agencies to use independent advisors to grow their businesses has frankly been critical to the industry’s recent resurgence. This is not an Uber of Lyft situation here – it works for agencies owners, ICs and their clients. We’re trying to highlight that legislators risk making our industry and other collateral damage in their desire to go after the ‘big gig’ economy companies, and we think we have a strong case. We’ve gotten tremendous grassroots support and engagement from our California members, and intend to keep fighting as long as it takes to get an exemption for travel advisors.
TRO: Does ASTA have any upcoming news that you can share with us?
EP: One thing we’ll be highlighting at the convention is our Vacation Do Over project. In this campaign, we asked for submissions from the traveling public, sharing stories about DIY vacations gone horribly wrong. We’re sending the people who submit the most compelling story on a re-done trip of their dreams, valued at up to $10,000. Best of all, this time we’ll do all the work. Every aspect of their vacation will be planned by one of ASTA’s expert travel advisors. Our goal in this campaign was two-fold. First, we needed to understand the pain points that consumers experience when they book on their own. And second, we want to show the value that travel advisors provide by re-doing one ruined trip in particular for a lucky winner. We’re excited about this campaign, and in fact just announced the winner on August 6.
TRO: Eben, thank you for your time.
EP: Absolutely, thank you for the opportunity!