Copland to Agents: Stay Aggressive

During his opening address at the 72nd World Congress, ASTA President Richard Copland rallies agents: "We’ve got to move on and prepare ourselves to be the travel agents of tomorrow by building relationships with suppliers and cementing relationships with consumers. However, we would be hiding our heads in the sand if we didn’t acknowledge that suppliers are taking a closer look at our performance.”

By: Robert Carlsen

HONOLULU Like a football coach pumping up his players before a big game, ASTA President Richard Copland urged travel agents to stay aggressive and focused and to embrace both technology and supplier partnerships during hard times.

During his opening address at the 72nd ASTA World Congress here last week, Copland said when he assumed the presidency of the association two years ago at the Las Vegas congress, “I spoke about a dream, and part of that dream was for a two-year period where there was a semblance of sanity around the world and some stability in the industry. The dream turned into a nightmare.

“It seems the only event that didn’t happen during my term was the melting of the polar ice cap.”

Copland, who has since been elected to a second term, said ASTA will continue to fight the airlines for the benefit of agents and consumers.

However, he added, for some members and nonmembers who still want ASTA to expend all its energies and use its resources battling the airlines: “Folks, the plane may have been delayed, but it’s taken off. Focusing on the airlines is yesterday’s news. Going to zero commissions has uprooted what little was left of our old comfortable world. Travel agents are in deep trouble if they haven’t figured out by now that the business model that’s been the key to success for the past 30 years has become irrelevant.

“We’ve got to move on and prepare ourselves to be the travel agents of tomorrow by building relationships with suppliers and cementing relationships with consumers. However, we would be hiding our heads in the sand if we didn’t acknowledge that suppliers are taking a closer look at our performance.”

For years, Copland said, customers called on agents, who offered a huge menu of everything that was available.

“Suppliers saw that as order taking, not selling, and they were right,” he said. “As times changed, we became better business people. We narrowed our preferred suppliers and for this we were rewarded. The flip side is that consumers began to question our neutrality, spurred on by the consumer media. While selected selling is standard business practice in many industries, when it comes to travel agents, it’s labeled ‘bias.’”

Pay no attention to that viewpoint, he told agents. Close relationships with suppliers will produce extra perks for clients and prompt attention to their problems, among other benefits.

“A major challenge for the travel agents of tomorrow will be finding just the right combination of suppliers who want us and consumers who need us,” he said.

Copland said agents shouldn’t be cowed by online travel agencies.

“Savvy agents understand that the pie of available business will constantly get bigger as more people travel,” he said. “There will always be a large segment of the population who values their time and has no interest in being a do-it-yourselfer.”

Even though to book with travel agents will cost more, agents must charge fees, he said. “It’s time all of us learned that if customers don’t want to pay for our services, they’re not customers we want.”

Copland acknowledged the agents in the audience by repeating a Japanese proverb: “If you sit on a stone for three years, you’ll get used to it.”

“The travel agents left standing today, and the ones I see sitting in the audience, are the ones who have refused to get used to sitting on a stone, refused to get used to having our value questioned and our livelihood attacked. They’ve fought back with the best weapon ever invented: intelligence the intelligence to change and adapt. And I have complete faith travel agents will continue on this course.”

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