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The fresh focus of ASTA’s annual conference, the newly renamed ASTA Global Convention, seemed to resonate with the needs of travel agents, both new to the industry and veteran.
“The sessions got me to rethink what I thought I already knew,” said Karen Kelley, a travel agent at Preferred Travel of Naples, Inc. in Naples, Fla.
Kelley has been in the travel industry for 37 years but had never been to an ASTA conference. The lure of keynote speaker and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton drove her to beg her boss to let her attend. Hiring a speaker of national prominence was a discontinued practice for ASTA that was reinstated this year under the new leadership of CEO Zane Kerby.
Kelley said that everything at the conference far exceeded her expectations, citing the high-quality education sessions and panels with industry executives as highlights.
“It’s not every day that you get to hear CEOs talking frankly,” said Kelley about the lively Cruise CEO Panel.
The panel, moderated by Travel Weekly’s Editor In Chief Arnie Weissmann, featured insights as well as light-hearted sparring among Viking River Cruises’ Tor Hagen, Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Richard Fain and Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Kevin Sheehan.
One session that Kelley found particularly helpful was a Critical Legal Issues breakout by Mark Pestronk, a travel attorney and legal columnist for Travel Weekly. Will Tate, senior vice president from Management Alternatives, was another popular presenter whose Negotiate Like a Pro education session delivered what many agents feel like they need from ASTA: more business training.
“Just because you’re a good travel agent doesn’t mean you’re a good travel agent owner,” said Carol Wagner, owner of Travel Leaders/Travel Plus.
Wagner was part of an invite-only, follow-up discussion to the Blue Sky Symposium, during which members of ASTA’s Young Professionals Society discussed major issues challenging the future of the travel agent workforce.
Industry veterans, including Camille Olivere, senior vice president of sales for Norwegian Cruise Line, joined the lively and highly engaged round-table which included topics such as the need to create a barrier of entry for travel professionals through licensing, the inadequacies of certification and the need for continued education.
More topics affecting the future of the travel agent profession included salaries and compensation, the need for mentorship, how to preserve the knowledge of travel agents leaving the workforce and the job description for the modern day travel agent.
ASTA YPS also held a summit during the conference, which attracted new faces, such as Kristina Placeres, assistant to the president/CEO at Preferred Travel of Naples, Inc. Placeres is a recent college graduate and a brand-new travel agent who found that the conference left her with a new network for support and suppliers, as well as a great foundation for her future career in terms of best practices — including being effective in social media and increasing the visibility of her agency and herself as a young travel agent.
“One of my favorite parts was the session on social media, hosted by Jason Coleman and Ashley Grush from YPS,” said Placeres. “It wasn’t a ‘how-to’ on social media — instead, it was a ‘how-to make it work for you’ as a tool to build recognition without being ‘salesy.’”
Ryan McGredy, president of ASTA YPS, also noted that even though YPS has only been an official chapter of ASTA for one year (it was a committee of ASTA before), it has made major inroads.
“Of all the ASTA board meetings I’ve sat in, at YPS, we’ve actually been able to accomplish things,” said McGredy. “There were around 35 agents who were new at our summit. That’s enacting something. We’ll keep going with this — creating committees and groups and people to create some real things out of our meetings. YPS was put in a box as the people under 40. It somehow got misconstrued that the YPS concern was only of people under 40, but no — these are everyone’s problems, and we should all be working on it together.”
Advocacy was also in action in the general sessions and panels. During the ASTA Town Hall Meeting discussion of the New Distribution Capability (NDC) and the future of retail pricing, moderator Paul Ruden, senior vice president of legal and industry affairs at ASTA, was successful in getting Yanik Hoyles, head of business development passenger at International Air Transport Association, to accept ASTA’s participation in future discussions of the legislation. Previously, ASTA had been denied from participating in conversations about NDC, an in-development XML-based communication standard for airlines and distribution channels.
“We made some mistakes. No one is perfect,” said Hoyles. “ASTA is welcome to participate. Travel agents can really contribute, influence and shape this. NDC is not going to take off if the supply chain doesn’t work together.”
And if there was one resonating message behind the ASTA Global Conference it was that travel agents — veteran and young — as well as the travel industry in general, should work together to be as visible, strong and successful as possible.