STA's annual gathering is only two-thirds over as I write this, but I can say with confidence that it is -- unexpectedly -- the most successful congress in recent memory.

Its success won't be reflected in the numbers -- with just over 3,000 delegates, no attendance records were in danger of being broken. The trade show was relatively small, and few international members showed up. Of the total attendees, about 1,600 were travel agents, and a full 40% of them were comped nonmembers, subsidized by Royal Caribbean, Thrifty Car Rental and Marriott.

What made it successful can't be quantified easily, but can be put in context.

Earlier this year, ASTA executive vice president Bill Maloney outlined the Society's problems to me, candidly acknowledging that it was shrinking and aging; that the organization was bogged down by those members fixated on commission cuts and hatred of the airlines; and that members were demoralized by consumer media reports on the assumed demise of agents.

And that was before base commissions were brought down to zero and there was talk of war in Iraq.

But between then and now, something clicked with many agents, and something clicked within ASTA. Agents realized that, a year after Sept. 11, they were still in business. Many had reconfigured their operations and were having profitable years.

ASTA's finger was on the pulse of its membership, and it put on a show to give some momentum to the budding shift in agents' attitudes.

It was a feel-good congress, heavy on inspiration and light on issues and answers. Many of the seminars were little more than paid commercials, and general sessions were, by and large, focused on ukulele strumming, singing, dancing and motivational speeches.

In any other year, I might have found that to be a cause for criticism. But at the end of 2002, I think that agents needed an outlet to celebrate being alive and having reason for hope.

The two general session speakers, Dewitt Jones and Jim Lovell, are from outside the industry, though both have a connection to travel: Jones -- brother of Travelocity's founding CEO, Terry Jones -- is a photographer for National Geographic, and Lovell, the astronaut who took a long, disastrous voyage in the Apollo 13 capsule, became an American Express spokesman after Sept. 11.

Both speakers told stories that related to situations where the near-impossible was accomplished, and I'm sure more than a few agents in the audience felt they could relate. They may not have brought a crippled spaceship back to Earth, but they showed ingenuity of their own when their life-support systems began to shut down.

In the seminars, there was little of the grousing about airlines that dominated these gatherings over the past few years. The carriers were more likely to be the butt of a joke than the object of anger. That, more than anything, demonstrated that agents are moving on.

Though their numbers were smaller, the suppliers I spoke with at the trade show were there because they believe, more than ever, in the importance of the travel agency distribution system.

Maloney, ASTA president Richard Copland, congress chair Susan Tanzman and the ASTA staff deserve congratulations. They created the right environment for November 2002.

The challenge that remains is to build on this momentum and convert those nonmembers to members. The proof of the success of this year's congress will be seen in next year's meeting. If ASTA can maintain the positive atmosphere while adding heaping portions of substance, the 2002 congress may well be regarded as a critical turning point for the association.


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