At the ASTA Destination Expo, a panel discussion featured Moroccan women of influence. // © 2015 ASTA
Feature image (above): Almost 300 travel agents traveled to Marrakech, Morocco, for the event. // © 2015 ASTA
Travel trends, agent education and industry evolution were among the hot topics in Marrakech, Morocco, in late February, when nearly 300 travel agents from the U.S. converged for the ASTA Destination Expo (ADE), a five-day confab of networking, instruction and exploration of one of northern Africa’s most legendary cities.
The gathering also provided a forum for ASTA officials to publicize their organization’s progress in the industry.
“ASTA is coming back, folks,” said Roger Block, chairman of ASTA and president of Travel Leaders, noting that ASTA is now on sound financial ground. “The focus on the financial side of the house has been extremely important.”
Moving forward, Block said that ASTA’s goals include attracting younger members and further developing educational opportunities for agents of every age and experience level.
“ASTA is in the unique position of offering the type of education that no consortium can,” he said. “We came up with education tracks for corporate-focused agencies, for leisure-focused agencies, for business owners and more. We think it will be totally unique. Whether you’re 20 and just getting into the industry or whether you’ve been in the industry longer than I have, you’re going to find education that will be very valuable for your business.”
Paul Ruden, executive vice president of legal and industry affairs for ASTA, discussed growth opportunities for travel agents during a public session at the expo.
“The travel business is undergoing a fundamental change,” Ruden said. “And it’s doing that because consumers are changing. There are still consumers who want to get on buses and go sightseeing. But, the data suggest that experiential travel is what the younger generation and older travelers are interested in.”
Ruden used ADE’s host nation as an example of the potential for travel agents to benefit from the experiential trend.
“Destinations such as Morocco are great for experiential travel, where you can get out of the bus and interact,” he said. “But many consumers need a travel agent to guide them toward experiential travel opportunities. That’s going to be the strength and the survival for most travel agents going forward. Everyone has access to a lot of data and information, but translating that into an experience that will award you in the way you want to be rewarded — you’re going to need a travel agent for that. The education that we do is all part of moving the industry into that environment. People want expert help that you can’t get any other way. It’s one of the reasons we’re in Morocco, and it’s one of the reasons that ASTA is so important to travel agents.”
Moroccan tourism officials as well as ASTA members predicted that the ADE conference — which included options for pre- and post-tours — would create a surge in new interest in U.S. travel to Morocco.
To that end, ASTA officials, including CEO and president Zane Kerby, signed a memorandum of understanding for a new partnership with the Moroccan National Tourist Office, which will allow the two organizations to work together to better promote the destination to the U.S. market. Abderrafia Zouitene, CEO of Moroccan National Tourist Office, and Abdellatif Kabbaj, president of Morocco’s National Confederate of Tourism, also signed the memorandum.
Some 220,000 U.S. tourists visit Morocco each year currently, an increase from approximately 80,000 annual visitors a decade ago.
Expo sponsors and suppliers expressed their support for the U.S. travel agent community.
“I strongly believe that the best of the airlines and travel agencies will survive and develop,” said Driss Benhima, chairman and CEO of Royal Air Maroc, which introduced the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on its New York City-Casablanca route just days before the conference, and also announced a new codeshare partnership with JetBlue during the event.
“Travel is not a commodity, it’s a human experience,” continued Benhima. “We are on the same side of the battle, and you can rely on us to understand your needs.”
ASTA has an array of events scheduled this year, including Legislative Day on March 19, during which travel professionals will meet with lawmakers, and the ASTA Global Convention, which is slated for Aug. 29 to Sept. 1.