The International Inbound Travel Association has undergone several changes over the years. The trade organization has adapted to the ever-evolving travel scene, developed educational programs to improve the businesses of their members and has become a voice for the inbound travel industry on the political front.
Travel is simple. Well, at least compared to 20 years ago. Today, we’re lucky to have the resources and technology to book a trip anywhere in the world with the click of a button. Back in the early 1990s, this was not the case. There was an entire system of outbound and receptive operators working to put together itineraries and travel plans for people all over the world. An entire industry existed to make dream vacations come true. That industry is still around today, but it’s evolved along with the whole travel scene. The International Inbound Travel Association (IITA) has been there from the beginning, and just like the industry it serves, it has transformed from a small network to a comprehensive, strong organization.
A Little Background on the IITA
IITA began in 1991 as the Receptive Services Association (RSA). It consisted of receptive tour operators mostly based in New York and New Jersey. The group formed as a community where they addressed problems in their business and discussed viable solutions. “When it was first formed, there were issues facing the industry,” says Jonathan Zuk, chairman of IITA from 2012 to 2015. “Things that all receptive operators faced, including collection of money, best practices and hotel rates.” The group was a way to create a unified voice for companies and build stability, Zuk adds.
After a few years, the RSA started gaining interest from suppliers in other areas, and it was clear they needed to broaden their reach. They joined with the International Travel Services Association in 2004 to become the Receptive Services Association of America (RSAA) to better serve providers in other parts of the country. A few years later, the organization realized that the changing landscape of travel required it to reevaluate its purpose and vision—and its name.
What’s in the Name?
Just before RSAA’s 25th anniversary, the board went through an extensive evaluation and strategic plan. “[It] found that RSAA did not have the national identity we were looking for,” says Gary Schluter, Chair of the Board of IITA.
A lot of that had to do with the word ‘receptive.’ Most people in the industry understand its meaning but use the term in public or with someone in the government or media, and the meaning is lost. “The [travel] industry was evolving and expanding,” says Lisa Simon, Executive Director of IITA. “The term receptive didn’t completely fit who they were anymore or who the actual inbound operators were.”
The decision was made to change the trade organization’s name, and in 2016, it rebranded as the International Inbound Travel Association. “The new name was much more descriptive of who we are and what we represent within the U.S. travel industry,” says Schluter. With the name change came a lot of internal change in the IITA. The group that was once very territorial started to broaden its reach and become more inclusive. It embraced all operators working in the inbound tourism industry.
“With the expansion of their focus, they really have seen a diversification of inbound operators,” explains Simon. It was one of the biggest changes for IITA, according to Schluter, but one they welcomed. The group now represents around 150 members, ranging from traditional receptive operators and MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) to business travel, bed banks, and destination management companies (DMCs), among others.
IITA Mission and Goals for the Future
Over the past few years, IITA has become more involved with education for its members and advocacy for the inbound travel industry. Through special programs and its annual summit, IITA helps members looking to snag a piece of the international travel pie. It offers guidance on issues a destination or supplier may not think about, such as language and signage. It connects suppliers with experienced inbound operators who can share best practices or help them target specific international markets. IITA’s new program, Inbound Insider Steps to Success, focuses on many of these areas. It is the latest effort by IITA to help its members better prepare for international visitors, especially those from emerging markets like Asia and South America.
As travel grew into a substantial money maker, more businesses and organizations got involved, including the government. As a result, IITA had to evolve to include government relations, something that never existed in the group before, according to Zuk. Now, IITA is the voice of the inbound tour operators on a national level, addressing issues that impact their business, says Simon, including national park regulation, travel visa and entry concerns, and open skies issues. Their most recent victory involved the proposal from the National Park Service to raise entry fees for several major parks, as well as change commercial tour authorization. IITA appealed to NPS, stating that a substantial increase in cost would hurt international tourism to the country. In the end, NPS still raised fees, but by far less than originally projected.
It’s public policy battles like this that will continue to be fought by IITA on behalf of its
members. “As an organization, the more involved we are, the more keyed in we are to everything that happens around the country and in the world,” says Zuk. “The better service we can provide our members.” While the organization has a relatively small member base, they hope to grow that in the future, both in number and in influence. “As our membership base grows, so does our overall representation of the inbound industry,” says Schluter. “The numbers can only help with a more powerful voice in our advocacy as well as our authority to educate.”
While education and advocacy are part of the foundation of IITA’s mission, the members are what drive its initiatives. “The overall goal is to make sure we’re an organization that provides a high return on investment for our members,” says Simon. “We are a business oriented group that gives them more tools and resources to be successful in their businesses, while also influencing public
policy and being that voice…to really shape the future of their industry