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Where the gas is greener
New auto club aims to take on AAA and offer environmental kickbacks

Portland Tribune
April 26, 2002

The next time you’re stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire or a hissing radiator, you could call someone who might be able to help the environment as well as your poor jalopy.

Mitch Rofsky and Todd Silberman, both of Northwest Portland, are preparing to launch a “green” travelers club that offers roadside assistance, travel services and insurance along with ways to reduce the damage of travel on the environment.

Their Better World Travel Co., 1536 N.W. 23rd Ave., will introduce the Better World Travelers Club on Sunday at the Oregon Zoo to coincide with the zoo’s Earth Day Celebration.
“Primarily, what we’re putting together is a greener, cooler version of AAA,” said Rofsky, 51, president of the club. “Not only are we funding programs that offset carbon monoxide emissions, but we’re also going to give donations to environmental cleanups and 1 percent of our gross to environmental groups.”

Rofsky and Silberman, 50, grew up together in Columbus, Ohio, where they were once in the same Cub Scout troop.

Their business backgrounds are tailor-made for their new venture. Silberman co-founded Lifeco, a $1.5 billion travel agency that was sold to American Express in the early 1990s. Rofsky, a former Nader’s Raider, founded American Consumer Insurance Agency, a socially responsible insurance broker, and Working Assets, a mutual fund that invests in environmentally friendly companies.

Earth advantages

Rofsky said he saw an opportunity to create an alternative motor club after a number of people in the environmental community approached him about the 100-year-old American Automobile Association, which has more than 45 million members in the United States and Canada. He called up Silberman, who had moved here in 1994. Silberman suggested they start Better World Travel in Portland, which he considered “ground zero of the environmental movement.”

Two years ago, they merged Rofsky’s Boston-based insurance company and a number of Portland travel agencies — including Elephant’s Trunk, Journeys, Triangle and Vogue — to begin building Better World Travel and the club.

Funding for the club comes from private and angel investors, along with support from the parent company’s $15 million to $20 million in annual sales.

Better World Travel’s relationships with environmentally friendly companies such as EV Rental Car will provide club members with discounts on hybrid cars, green hotels and eco-lodges, and access to a number of vacation houses.

And every time members book a flight through the company, Better World Travel invests money to offset carbon dioxide emissions in a project to retrofit boiler systems at Portland Public Schools. One percent of both the company’s and the club’s revenues will be donated to environmental cleanup efforts.

Membership rates are comparable to other motor clubs. They range from $50 to $95 depending on the level of service. Free towing nationwide — from 5 to 100 miles from the place of pickup — is included.

To market the club, Rofsky and Silberman are relying on grass-roots marketing to reach out to environmental groups in person, as well as direct marketing via mail.

In addition, they said they’ve received endorsements from high-profile environmentalists and celebrities, including Ralph Nader and National Public Radio’s “Car Talk” hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as Click and Clack.

A lobbying powerhouse
Although Rofsky and Silberman said they’re not anti-AAA, distinguishing their club’s green approach from AAA’s environmental record makes for a critical element in their marketing materials.

One handout is titled “Think AAA is just about towing? Think again … AAA is doing a great job of fouling up the planet by opposing everything from strong air quality controls to mass transit funding.”

Among the anti-environment items listed are a statement in AAA’s 1999 Clearing the Air report saying that “smog produced by automobiles does not contribute … to ozone problems in our cities.”

Mantill Williams, a national spokesman for AAA, said Better World Travel’s assertions are false. Had the statement been complete, he said it would have included AAA’s opinion that motor vehicles as well as nonmobile sources contribute to ozone problems.

“They’re trying to misrepresent our position to use our name to make money,” Williams said. “We’re for a free market economy and competition is good, but you should try to run your business with integrity.”

Better World Travel’s approach worked for Wendy Lehman of Chicago.

She allowed her 14-year membership with AAA to lapse because she wanted an environmentally friendly alternative.

“The fact that Better World Travel isn’t lobbying in those directions — even if they did nothing else — would be an improvement,” said Lehman, 30, who read about AAA’s lobbying on the Internet. “Unless people are willing to take the risk for alternatives, then nothing will change.”

Contact Cristine Gonzalez at cgonzalez@portlandtribune.com

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