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
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'
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
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
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.