Arnie WeissmannLong gone are the rites of fall, when the coming of September meant that 7,000 or so ASTA members might trek halfway around the world to convene.

It was a time when presidents -- of airlines, cruise lines, even nations -- felt it was a wise use of their time to address a large chamber full of travel agents.

Sponsorship slots for meals, parties, entertainment and the right to put gifts in delegates' rooms would sell without too much trouble. Supplier booths could fill multiple halls, not just with tabletop stands, but with pavilions.

Are you thinking that ASTA's golden age is behind it? Are you nostalgic for the good old days of the ASTA World Congress?

Don't be. These -- not those -- are ASTA's glory days.

Last week, ASTA held its annual meeting at TheTradeShow in Las Vegas. This year, an estimated 2,500 delegates showed up, about 500 fewer than last year. In most respects, it didn't resemble the ASTA World Congresses described above.

So where's the glory in these glory days? you might ask.

With a staff that's a fraction the size of its old roster and a budget stripped bare, ASTA is doing more for its members than at any time I can remember. Its lobbying efforts are finding a toehold in Congress. Its education programs are engaging and relevant.

And its bet to attract powerful, large agencies on a Corporate Advisory Council, a long-shot move unpopular with many rank-and-file members, has been a key component in its success on Capitol Hill and has provided weight to its discussions when dealing with suppliers. Its council roster is now a reasonable cross-section of Travel Weekly's Power List and the billions of dollars in travel product sales the Power List represents.

ASTA President Chris Russo's speech at the annual meeting was more an argument that ASTA is relevant than a boast of its accomplishments, but the aggregate achievements outlined in his address, as well as those of Bill Maloney, CEO, and Paul Ruden, senior vice president of legal and industry affairs, represented more activity and impact in the past 12 months than in any other one-year period I can recall in the last 20 years.

Russo appears to be focused on improving ASTA's efforts in the agency service and education arenas. ASTA's website has become an extraordinary resource, including everything from what to do if an airline declares bankruptcy to how to apply for Small Business Administration loans, from a 14-part guide on charging service fees to an airline-by-airline chart of a la carte pricing. Twenty instructional webinars were produced by ASTA over the past year, and all are now archived.

Maloney and Cheryl Ahearn, senior vice president of market development, deserve a lot of credit for their vision, patience and faith despite sniping from skeptics (myself included). Ruden, who at this point is the longest-tenured senior staff member, is on a roll in 2009. The former aviation lawyer (he once represented Southwest) has been deeply involved in ASTA's strategy and activity on several fronts at once, including constructing arguments to get some members of Congress on the Society's side in the fight against United's merchant account moves. He also has led the struggle against the New York hotel tax and on "secure flight" issues, among others.

As impressive as the Society's activities have been, the goings-on of travel agents' other professional association, ARTA, have been puzzling.

ARTA has, over the years, served a useful role as gadfly to the more "establishment" ASTA. While ASTA has always balanced agent interests with those of suppliers, ARTA was less concerned with supplier sentiment in its advocacy of retail agent concerns.

In what appears to be a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome, ARTA's current position in the United merchant account controversy goes beyond acceptance of United's position to a defense of United.

Well, sort of a defense. Like United, it won't actually explain why United is taking this action, but it says that it understands the carrier's position after getting a private briefing. Nonetheless, it attacks United's critics, charging that the matter has been "exploded" out of proportion by the media and other parties (read: ASTA).

It's a strange charge, given that ARTA itself had filed a complaint with the Transportation Department about the United action and had provided Travel Weekly with an advance copy of a second complaint that was eventually pulled back. Until its flip-flop, ARTA was as willing as anybody to take its concerns about United to "the media."

It's not as if Travel Weekly and ASTA haven't also asked United to share its thought process. The airline has declined to take Ruden's phone calls or, when asked, to explain its position to our reporters. But in deciding to sit down with the weaker of the agency associations, United succeeded less in dividing travel agent sentiment than in damaging the credibility of its erstwhile defender.

In a recessionary year like this, there will continue to be financial pressure on ASTA. Travel agents, watching expenses carefully, might be tempted to save on the cost of a membership renewal. This would be a mistake, and if you're on the fence on this issue, spend a little time on the ASTA website.

The gloss of the old World Congress may be gone, but there has never been more substance to ASTA.

Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter.


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