ASTA Under the Magnifying Glass

After years of industry turmoil, this agent organization ponders its future path

By: Theresa Norton Masek

As ASTA heads to Hong Kong for its final overseas World Congress, the key players in the 20,000-member organization are focusing on its future.

The U.S. travel industry is only too aware of how much has changed over the past several years, especially as the world observes the third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

ASTA is no exception to the turmoil that has shaken the industry. As its membership rolls have shrunk, the association is now faced with plotting its future and meeting the goals of its members.

To help guide it over the next five years, ASTA’s board of directors in July agreed to hire an outside consulting firm. The consultant has not been hired yet, but ASTA said it expects to have in-depth research from membership surveys by November.

“We will have someone to present us with the hard facts about the marketplace,” said Kathy Sudeikis, who will be inaugurated as ASTA’s president and CEO during the World Congress in Hong Kong Sept. 28-Oct. 2.

“We have been working on assumptions and anecdotal evidence. ASTA needs to work from facts using the size of the market and reality.”

Among the questions ASTA faces: Is it a lobbying organization or one devoted to increasing the profitability of brick-and-mortar travel agencies? Is it a watchdog over the tourism industry or the only agency to tell consumers how agents can protect them as they navigate the sometimes perilous new world?

Can ASTA do it all? Should it? Some agents think ASTA tries to do all of the above and spreads itself too thin. Others say ASTA must provide assistance to the many different kinds of agents working today while keeping a high profile on the legislative front.

“Our industry has changed so much in the last several years,” said ASTA member Susan Parr, of Susan Parr Travel Inc. in Port Angeles, Wash. “We have to learn how as an organization and an industry to roll with the punches, learn how to deal with what is happening, and not dwell on the past and look to the future.”

But ask agents what ASTA needs to change, and you sometimes get opposite viewpoints.

“I’ve been in the industry 24 years, and ASTA was probably more focused on the retail industry 10 or 15 years ago,” said member Eric Maryanov, owner of in Los Angeles.

“ASTA now is too many things to too many people,” he continued. “They shouldn’t try to be all things to all members, which is probably its biggest downfall, but should identify where its strength is, which is national lobbying. ASTA’s focus is in Washington D.C. and man, that’s where we need them. And that’s where they should be and where the energy and focus should be.”

Thinking along the same lines is Liz Nixon, of The Cruise Place in San Marcos, Calif.

“I see ASTA doing more in education, but there are so many other organizations doing education, why reinvent the wheel?” Nixon wondered. “I’d rather see ASTA spend all their money working on behalf of the travel agency community in legal areas, and let the training be handled by other organizations.”

Maryanov notes the growth over the past several years of consortiums and cooperatives, which deal more with agencies’ day-to-day business operations. Consortiums help negotiate overrides with preferred suppliers and also educate agents on how to increase profits. Many consortiums now host their own trade shows and educational events.

“As the Signature Travel Groups and other consortiums have grown and evolved, it has allowed ASTA to take a back seat on that area” of marketing and education, Maryanov said.

But Bev Zukow, of First Travel of California in Villa Park, Calif., thinks ASTA complements educational and marketing programs offered by consortiums.

“I think the agencies realize that through cooperative buying power, their bottom lines and commissions definitely benefit from belonging to a consortium,” said Zukow, who is chairing the upcoming Congress. “Add ASTA to the mix and it’s the perfect way to be in business today.”

She notes that ASTA often communicates with agents within hours of world events that could impact the travel industry. “ASTA jumped in immediately on Sept. 12 and did what was needed to keep the industry abreast of what was going on,” Zukow said.

Susan Parr recalls that ASTA last month alerted its members to a possible work stoppage by British Airways employees at London’s Heathrow Airport.

“I do a lot of business with BA, so it was critical that I have that information at my fingertips,” Parr said. “The ASTA alert was in my e-mail first thing. I was able to copy and paste that into e-mails to all my clients leaving in that time frame so that they would be aware there might be some delays.”

Nixon recalls that some agents became “disenchanted” with ASTA after the airlines capped and cut commissions.

“Some didn’t feel ASTA did as much as they could have to head it off at the pass or at the first cap to really try to prove collusion,” she said.

She heralded ASTA’s most recent efforts against Northwest Airlines’ plan to charge agents fees on ticket purchases, a move that the airline has since rescinded.

“This is what ASTA should be doing,” Nixon said. “They need to be putting all their time and money into protecting and helping travel agents.”

But agents who have been active in ASTA for years say many of the association’s good efforts go unnoticed.

“I feel like ASTA is working really hard right now for us, and sometimes it’s hard to get out the wonderful things ASTA is doing to fight our cause,” said Renée Olsen, owner of Apollo Travel in Port Orchard, Wash., and president of ASTA’s Pacific Northwest chapter. “They’ve done a fabulous job with the state of our affairs since 9/11, and they’re hurting as much as we are.”

The man overseeing ASTA the past four years as president and CEO is Richard Copland, who will turn over the office to Sudeikis in Hong Kong.

“When I think on the past four years, I’m reminded of the opening line of ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ” Copland said. “ ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

“I took office in November 2000 and it was the best of times. Over the next 18 months, we had hoof-and-mouth disease and we thought that was major! We had 9/11, a bad economy, bankruptcies, a bad stock market, not one but two wars, the introduction of terrorism and SARS,” he said. “About the only thing that didn’t happen to me was locusts, but we would’ve been ready for that too.”

Copland maintains that ASTA has changed as much as any retailer over the past four years. In the post-Sept. 11 fallout, he said, ASTA has eliminated regional shows and meetings, changed its World Congress, increased its profile in political arenas and among the consumer media, and opened its membership to include home-based or independent, non-ARC appointed agents.

While ASTA press release archives show membership exceeded 28,600 five years ago and claims 20,000 now, it does say that membership applications are up by 20 percent this year. Still, in June during national elections, just slightly over 1,100 agents cast ballots out of 6,490 members eligible to vote. A sign of apathy? Perhaps, but one that also plagues many other organizations in this age of working harder for less, ASTA officials say.

“Half the people in the U.S. don’t even vote for president,” Copland noted. A new online voting system also played a factor in discouraging some ASTA voting, he said.

Attendance also has dwindled at ASTA World Congress. Zukow said close to 2,000 agents and suppliers are registered for the Hong Kong Congress, compared to 3,438 last year in Miami when it was combined with ASTA’s Cruisefest.

“I’m pleased at seeing some names [registered for Hong Kong] that we had not had for five years,” she said. “We had our goal on at least 1,700 total. To commit to Hong Kong, you’ve got two days of traveling each way, so it’s a minimum of a week out of the office. It has to be a benefit and we have to make it worth it.”

Zukow said the Congress will continue to offer many educational offerings on the industry, upscale and specialty selling and the destination itself. “I don’t believe you can repeat things too often,” she said.

Still, next year’s World Congress in Montreal will be ASTA’s last in a foreign destination. Starting in 2006, the Congress will alternate between Orlando and Las Vegas, making it easier for agents to attend for shorter periods or as a walk-in. To offer overseas familiarization, ASTA in 2006 will begin hosting annual International Invitationals that will include destination training. The regional shows were cancelled because they required “an enormous amount of time and effort, and fewer and fewer people have the time to go,” Copland said. “We just had to change the mode. It was successful 20 years ago, but doesn’t meet the needs of today.”

Overall, Copland said ASTA’s goal is simple: “Ensuring the long-term health of travel.”

Today, ASTA is trying to bring more agents into the fold, creating a Young Professionals Society for members under 40 and the Corporate Advisory Council of the mega-agencies like Travelocity.

“The vision we had was to see future opportunities for agents and suppliers, and ASTA is there to help with training, innovative technology, partners and outreach,” Copland said. “If we stand united, we’re a powerful force.”

And that’s what agents need to keep in mind, said Susan Tanzman, of Martin’s Travel and Tours in Los Angeles and a recent unsuccessful candidate for director of Area 2 in Southern California and Southern Nevada.

“If there is any failure in ASTA, it is not ASTA itself, it is the members,” Tanzman said. “Travel agents have no concept that without a trade association you have no clout in your arena.

“Only 57 people voted in our area out of 500. We have created this by not educating the travel agency community of the importance of their involvement. It’s not what ASTA does for you, it’s what you have done for ASTA.”




- Average agency in business for 22 years and ASTA member for 17 years.

- 26 percent are based in the Western U.S.

- 81.4 percent use the Internet always or occasionally to compare prices with those on the GDSs.

- Airline sales accounted for 32.1 percent of sales in 2002, down from 54 percent in 2001.

- Airline sales projected to decrease to 27.2 percent this year.

- 59.5 percent have a Web site; of those, 35.6 percent had a booking engine.

- E-mail is used by 94.7 percent.

Source: ASTA 2003 Travel Agency Profile Study