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The Travel Club Business
The Better World Travel Club is an ecofriendly alternative to "Triple A."
By Ralph Nader

FOR DECADES THE American Automobile Association – better known as Triple A – has grown up with the American automobile. Millions of travelers have joined to ensure themselves of roadside service in emergencies and to gain access to TripTik (maps), travelers checks, insurance, and other travel offerings.

Beneath its benign image as a "travel club," AAA has become a big-time lobbyist that mimics the agenda of the nation's giant automobile manufacturers. Travelers who pay dues to AAA find themselves supporting lobbyists who fight the "Clean Air Act," public transportation, stronger safety standards, and even bike paths.

"What they [AAA members] don't know is that AAA is a lobbyist for more roads, more pollution, and more gas guzzling," says Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming/Energy program. Now a couple of entrepreneurs from Portland, Ore. – Mitch Rofsky and Todd Silberman – are challenging Triple A's comfortable perch at the top of the travel-club business. Rofksy and Silberman have formed the Better World Travelers Club, which not only competes head-to-head on basic travel services but also actively supports programs for a clean environment.

Rofsky was a consumer activist in Washington who later became president of Working Assets Capital Management, where he managed a widely acclaimed socially responsible mutual fund and was the first chairperson of Business for Social Responsibility. Silberman headed Lifeco, which became the nation's third largest travel company before its sale to American Express in 1993.

As starters, the Rofsky-Silberman team is donating 1 percent of the annual travel agency and club revenues to environmental cleanup efforts. They are also promoting big discounts on what they have dubbed "ecotravel services," including such things as green lodging and ecotours. The club also offers a 20 percent discount on electric and hybrid car rentals and discounts on bicycle and electric car purchases.

In its promotional material, the Better World Travelers Club reminds its customers that each time a passenger takes a domestic airline flight, more than a ton of harmful greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere. Rofsky and Silberman trumpet the fact that their club is the only U.S. travel agency to offer a clean-air program, Travel Cool, certified by the Climate Neutral Network for its efforts to offset greenhouse gasses generated by air travel. A portion of each airline ticket purchased through the Better World Travel Club will be earmarked for programs to save energy and reduce carbon dioxide pollution.

The club also offers Travel Cool automobile insurance that supports programs to help offset carbon produced by automobiles.

The pro-environmental stance of this new travel club is throwing down the gauntlet to other travel services, not only to AAA but also to the multitude of other travel clubs promoted through new car warranties and credit card companies. It is a highly competitive field, and consumers and the environment can only gain if the competition turns into a battle for cleaner air.

The news about healthy new competition in the travel business is welcome in the overall business community, which has been clearly stung by the sleaze revealed in the investigations of Enron, Tyco, World Com, and other corporations. Lawyers and public relations operatives are working overtime in efforts to restore badly tattered corporate images.

But it is going to take tangible action – not just slick public relations campaigns – to convince the American public that real change and real reform are being undertaken. The newspaper headlines and the television news programs are giving the public the impression that con artists have invaded boardrooms and executive suites en masse.

The Rofsky-Silberman effort in blazing a new trail in the travel business should be a reminder to American businesses that profit-making enterprises can operate with a conscience and with an authentic concern about the environment and health. The Better World Travelers Club's business plan is based on the concept that profit and the public interest can be compatible goals in our enterprise system.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian