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Going after AAA

Better World Travelers Club is pitching their green programs and discounts to environmentally conscious travelers.
By Suzanne Stevens

Mitch Rofsky and Todd Silberman don't scare easily. The two long-time friends are taking on a tourism institution, the granddaddy of motor clubs, the century-old AAA. Rofsky and Silberman's Portland-based upstart challenge, Better World Travelers Club, launches nationally this month. They say it offers the same 24-hour roadside assistance, maps, travel planning, and insurance as AAA at a comparable price - but with one major distinction. Their club is green, donating 1% of profits to programs that offset carbon dioxide emissions and offering members discounts to environmentally friendly hotels and retailers.

"The first thing marketing guys say is, 'You need to come up with one line to describe who you are,'" says Silberman, who operated the nation's third-largest travel agency, Lifeco, before selling it to American Express in 1991. "Our one line is: We want to be a modern alternative to an environmentally hostile AAA."

'Environmentally hostile' may seem a bit harsh for a motor club best known for rescuing stranded motorists and generating triptiks™. But what many of AAA's 45 million members don't know, according to Rofsky, is that the agency pushes a transportation agenda that's
anathema to environmentalism.

"They've tried to weaken clean air laws. They've come out against using tax dollars for mass transit and even opposed using old railroad bypasses for bike paths," says Rofsky.

Mantill Williams, national director for AAA's public affairs office in Washington, D.C., says Better World Travelers is misrepresenting his organization. AAA raises issues and questions about any new legislation that might impact members, he says, including the Clean Air Act.

"We believe that improving our air quality requires a contribution from all sources that contribute to the problem, not just automobiles," he says. "Yes, automobiles pollute. But emissions that are causing us to have air that's not clean also come from nonmobile sources, and we need to make sure the laws are just as strong for them as they are for automobiles."

Williams says AAA makes its lobbying efforts known to members through media press releases and through articles in its bimonthly magazine. Taking on an institution so entrenched in American history - AAA was created in 1902 - won't be easy. But Silberman and Rofsky come with credentials that could make Better World Travelers Club fly. Silberman brings to the team a deft knowledge of the travel industry. In addition to founding one of the nation's largest travel agencies, he worked as an attorney specializing in travel law. Rofsky, also an attorney, worked with Ralph Nader's Public Citizen and helped create Working Assets Mutual Fund, one of the first socially responsible investment funds. Working Assets later spun off the long-distance phone company that today has 400,000 customers and donates 1% of phone charges to nonprofit
groups.

"We thought if we could compete as effectively as Working Assets does with AT&T, we would have a very interesting business," says Rofsky.

The Better World Travelers Club is not about getting people to give up their cars. This is a travel club after all. What makes the club green is that it will reinvest 1% of gross profits to offset carbon dioxide emissions.

"On the average domestic roundtrip flight, you're putting almost a ton of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the air," says Rofsky. "If you're a club member, we offset that for free by investing in programs that reduce greenhouse gases."

The company is already donating money to help the Portland public schools replace oil burners with natural gas burners. Club members receive green discounts as well. For instance, members who stay on the San Francisco-based Hotel Triton's environmental floor will get $100 off their room. EV Rental Cars, a spinoff from Budget that rents hybrids and other alternative-fuel vehicles, offers members a 15% discount.

The company will be doing some national advertising to get their message out, and Rofsky and Silberman are already talking with schools about having students sell club memberships for fund-raisers. They're talking to corporations about offering membership as an employee benefit. Better World Travelers Club is also slated for some national airtime on the public radio programs Car Talk and The Savvy Traveler.

The company's early market research shows there are 8 million to 10 million committed
environmentalists out there, says Silberman, people who belong to a green organization
such as the Sierra Club or give to environmental causes. But there are another 60 million people that are interested in environmental issues.

"Given the choice between two products that cost about the same and do about the same thing, I'll walk across the street to get the one that's good for the environment,"
says Silberman. "Part of what we do is educate people that there are simple things that you can do. You don't have to change your lifestyle; you don't have to chain yourself to a tree. It's just making simple decisions that effects change."

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