ASTA at a Crossroads

President Nina Meyer leads the organization through a transformation By: Janeen Christoff
The show floor at ASTA-LA. // © 2012 Crystal Dimond
The show floor at ASTA-LA. // © 2012 Crystal Dimond

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This is not the first time that ASTA has been at a crossroads and on the verge of major change. It won’t be the last. But the organization’s ability to take charge and drive change, identify its challenges and deliver products that travel agents need is what’s going to keep it going for years to come. Indeed, its recent Travel Retailing and Destination Expo (ASTA-LA), showed that the organization is not afraid to switch things up.

Maybe the show’s new additions didn’t result in a large turnout, and maybe some didn’t work as well as others, but ASTA-LA — a different event in a new location — was a step in the right direction. The show featured more opportunities for agent education and new networking and learning opportunities that haven’t been available for travel agents at past events.

“When you come to this event, you’ll get a return on investment,” said Nina Meyer, president and interim CEO of ASTA.

While ASTA-LA’s attendance numbers were better than expected, the organization recently lost its CEO, Tony Gonchar, a key leader in ASTA’s quest for change. However, that doesn’t mean that the organization has put on the brakes — on the contrary, according to Meyer.

“We are not waiting for the new CEO. We have new initiatives and we are continuing to move forward,” she said.

Meyer did acknowledge that Gonchar was a key player in ASTA’s transformation.

“Tony was an asset to ASTA and really turned around the organization,” said Meyer. “He set the rudder in the right direction.”

Currently, ASTA is working diligently to form partnerships and continue its advocacy efforts, which members of the travel industry agree is its greatest strength.

“ASTA’s role in government regulatory issues is vitally important to today’s travel retailers,” said Michelle Morgan, president of Signature Travel Network. “As the Department of Transportation [DOT] and other government entities — federal and state — become more involved in the travel space, travel retailers need an advocate on Capitol Hill.”

ASTA’s recent accomplishments on behalf of travel agent advocacy include its participation in the White House Travel & Tourism Forum, where the organization was represented by senior vice president of industry affairs, Paul Ruden, and Olga Ramudo, an ASTA member and a member of the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board for the Department of Commerce. ASTA is also working with the DOT, and vice president of government affairs, Eben Peck, recently addressed the DOT’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection urging transparency of ancillary fees. In a statement, Peck said that, from ASTA’s point of view, airline ancillary fee disclosure and transactability is the single most important consumer protection issue being considered by the DOT today.

Travel insurance reform is another way in which ASTA is advocating for travel agents. Its government affairs division is working closely with the U.S. Travel Insurance Association at the state level to secure a more “rational travel insurance regulatory system that will eventually save agents the $40,000 in costs to comply with all 50 states’ licensing requirements today.”

ASTA has already had success in Florida, Kentucky and Minnesota and, this month, California governor Jerry Brown signed travel insurance bill AB 2354. The bill shifts the licensing burden for the sale of travel insurance from travel agents to “limited lines” insurance producers.

“ASTA gets high marks on the advocacy front, effectively representing travel agent concerns before government officials, suppliers and the general public,” said Lindsay Pearlman, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group. “When the local chapters add to the grassroots efforts, even more progress is made on behalf of the entire travel industry.”

While Meyer agrees that ASTA’s advocacy efforts are a top priority, she sees other opportunities for the organization.

“When it comes to advocacy, we’re the best out there,” said Meyer, “but there’s a lot more we can do.”

In addition to its policy efforts, ASTA is pursuing partnerships with several industry organizations, including NTA and CLIA, as well as working with various consortia to further benefit travel agents. This was something that was spearheaded by Gonchar, but Meyer plans to carry this vision into future relationships.

“Partnership with CLIA and NTA are important for ASTA moving forward,” said Meyer. “We are the industry, we are the spokesperson and we are the trade organization. Do we wish we could have done this earlier? Yes, but we can’t look at history.”

ASTA and NTA began its partnership earlier this year with the creation of the Hispanic Business Development Task Force at Tianguis Turistico in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The task force held its first caucus at ASTA-LA. on Sept. 8. The event provided a firsthand opportunity for participants to meet and connect with industry colleagues involved in Hispanic tourism; exchange strategies, insight and ideas meaningful to the marketplace; develop business opportunities for ASTA and NTA members working within the Hispanic market; and discuss ways in which to create more jobs within the travel industry.

In coordination with the caucus, a panel discussion — “25 Reasons Why Hispanics are Important in Growing Your Travel Business” — was held on Sept. 7 at the trade show, highlighting why the fastest-growing market in the U.S., Latinos, needs to be a key component of travel agents’ marketing plans.

Another ASTA initiative —The Joining Forces Travel Industry Coalition — furthers ASTA’s mission to inspire the next generation of travel agents. ASTA launched the coalition with the White House in February to provide well-deserved career opportunities to military families and to highlight the travel industry as a jobs creator. Joining Forces hired more than 1,200 veterans and military spouses year-to-date through July 31. The ASTA-led coalition members — which include corporations such as Hertz, Orbitz, American Express and more — are committed to providing 3,000 jobs by 2014.

Going forward, Meyer believes that the development of new partnerships is critical to the survival of the organization.

“Partnerships are going to be the way of the future for ASTA,” she said. “We all have to come to the table and work together. I want cruise lines at the table. I want airlines at the table. If we all don’t work together, we have not realized our potential. It’s as simple as that.”

Currently, ASTA is looking for new partnerships.

“We want to work with everybody to achieve our joint goals,” said Meyer.

Meetings and Events
While ASTA has many strengths, the organization has endured criticism over its Travel Retailing and Destination Expo. According to ASTA, this year’s show drew approximately 1,300 attendees, and it debuted a revamped agenda in a new location — Los Angeles. The show offered more in-depth education than in previous years, including on-site learning developed in conjunction with ASTA’s new partnership with Microsoft, and CLIA courses offering credits. Global Entry was also on hand to process applications and conduct interviews for travel agents who made appointments in advance, and agents could participate in a variety of sightseeing tours in Los Angeles. To further help attendance, NACTA held its conference in Los Angeles one day prior to ASTA-LA.

While the trade show floor was a disappointment, education sessions were well-attended, and The Travel Blogger Show, now in its third year, was packed with both agents, journalists and aspiring bloggers.

ASTA-LA also saw the launch of MYASTA, a new mentoring program through the Young Professional Society (YPS).

“MYASTA brings together everything we’re about in YPS under one umbrella — career development, education and networking,” said Jason Coleman, chief visionary of Jason Coleman Inc. and former YPS and SoCal ASTA president. “In such a short time, we’ve already received tremendous support and interest from high-quality veteran agents who are anxious to share their experiences with young agents.”

The program is designed to engage individual mentors and mentees, and give them another way to utilize their ASTA membership, which is something that both Coleman and Meyer believe is important for the future.

“Looking ahead at education, we are changing our models,” said Meyer. “The consortia are a change in our industry. We need to look at what we are adding to this picture with our trade show and transform it. People ask me ‘what is next year’s trade show going to look like?’ Let’s just call it an event. Let me tell you later what it’s going to be.”

ASTA’s other main event, The International Destination Expo (IDE) drew 750 attendees to Peru, where destination immersion is the main draw for travel agents. IDE will take place in Dubai in 2013, and travel agents will again have the opportunity to get in-depth information from local DMOs and suppliers as well as take fam trips and explore the region to enhance their knowledge.

A New Leader
The search for a new CEO is currently the primary focus of the organization.

“ASTA is on the right track, and it needs to find a leader who can continue to carry on what’s been happening for the last few years or so,” said Chris Russo, national account manager at Travel Insured International, Inc. and former ASTA president. “The CEO needs to be somebody who understands the travel industry and the struggles that every travel agency is going through. ASTA has been doing a great job of covering those bases and should continue the work that has been going on.”

Similar to Russo, Meyer, who is on the search committee, expects that the new CEO should continue to lead ASTA in its transformation.

“As the interim CEO and a member of the search committee, the experience has given me insight into the role of how the CEO needs to relate to the members of the board and the president,” said Meyer.

Meyer expects that ASTA will have one or two candidates to choose from by the time of its November board meeting. The board will select the new CEO at that time and have an individual ready to start on Jan. 2. Overall, ASTA is having a good year.

“The inroads ASTA has made with consumers and the mainstream media in terms of accurately and effectively positioning the value of working with a travel agent has been significant in the last few years, and I think we have ASTA to thank for much of that success,” said Libbie Rice, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group.

At the end of the trade show, many ASTA members seemed inspired by what they saw and said that they believe in the future of the organization.

“I really believe that ASTA will be around for a long time — for my generation of travel agents and the many more that will follow us,” said Coleman. “ASTA will look different 12 months from now, but that’s important for a healthy organization — one that continues to adapt to the changing needs of its members and the evolving dynamics in the industry.”

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