ASTA returns to high-profile approach for annual convention

By Kate Rice
HillaryClinton-Laos2012It’s a simple case of back to the future for ASTA and its annual conference.

Having former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a keynote speaker marks a return to a practice it abandoned several years ago — that of inviting high-profile movers and shakers to keynote the event.

Back in the heyday of the ASTA World Congress, kings and queens — King Juan Carlos of Spain and Jordan’s Queen Noor for starters — addressed the delegates, as did world leaders such as George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher.

Destinations courted ASTA leaders as if they were bringing in the Olympics, wooing them with the finest suites and fleets of limos. Such was the power of the agency distribution channel that in 1975, Rio de Janeiro’s re-creation of Carnival was almost as big as the original.

That all changed in the mid-1990s as the economic mainstay of travel retailing disappeared almost overnight when airlines first capped and then cut the commissions they had long paid agencies for every airline ticket they sold.

ASTA had to change its model, too, and it has been struggling ever since with what to do with a show had for so long been an annual extravaganza and a major source of revenue.

The last Congress was held in Montreal in 2005. The next year it was replaced by TheTradeShow, an event that focused on supplier booths, training and networking among agents and suppliers and between agents and agents. Rather than being held in destinations around the country and the world, it alternated between Las Vegas and Orlando. But TheTradeShow, too, struggled.

Two years ago, ASTA took a hard look at TheTradeShow. Then-CEO Tony Gonchar said that many agency organizations were offering much of what ASTA was offering: training and meetings with suppliers.

Last year, ASTA tweaked TheTradeShow, abandoning the practice of alternating the show’s venue between Las Vegas and Florida and relocating it to Los Angeles.

The Society tried to model TheTradeShow on its more successful International Destination Expo by, among other things, offering three highly targeted education tracks covering business productivity, marketing, sales and leadership, and industry affairs. Turnout was lukewarm.

Now ASTA is once again trying to remake its annual conference, replacing TheTradeShow with the ASTA Global Convention.

The name reflects a new brand and format, said Zane Kerby, ASTA’s president and CEO. It’s not just having a high-profile speaker like Hillary Clinton. It’s also about bringing in the top guns of major suppliers to talk to agents about their market insights and strategic direction.

So far, Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., has accepted an invitation to speak. ASTA has also invited the heads of another cruise line, an international airline and an international hotel group to speak.

On top of that, it will be offering hands-on training for agents in an education program.

“We want agents to walk away with hands-on practical experience,” Kerby said. “That is why we have a new senior director of education on staff.”

Kristi Long, who also teaches tourism as an adjunct professor at George Washington University, headed up education for ASTA from 1994 to 2000, then went to work for the Global Business Travel Association. She rejoined ASTA in early April.

ASTA’s goal with the Global Convention, according to Kerby, is to stage “a great trade show where people can network, find their preferred suppliers and hear from a global figure or two.”

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.
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