***ArnieWeissmann-fullFor the past 15 years or so, agents have found themselves increasingly cast as the Rodney Dangerfield of professional advisers.

They’ve been misunderstood and dissed by everyone from Tina Fey to New Yorker magazine cartoonists to the president of the United States.

And the fact is that, below a veneer of general support, one can detect that some suppliers and agency-group leaders themselves have a mixed view of agents. It manifests not in disrespectful comments, but in a tone that sometimes slips into patronization and condescension.

It’s reflected in training programs where the content and expectations seem calibrated to the comprehension levels of smart fifth-graders.

We all know that the range of agent sophistication is broad, but you know things have slipped when messaging adopts the tone of parent-to-child.

Generally speaking, I would not cast ASTA in the category of groups that talk down to their membership, but I have noticed a change for the better in the association’s programs that makes me wonder if they’re aiming a little higher and focusing on providing services that assume their members are intelligent and sophisticated businesspeople.

In just the last month-and-a-half, I received a series of press releases from ASTA that reflected an ambitious agenda. First came an invitation for a webinar looking at social media, online marketing and travel blogging.

Then there was an announcement about a partnership with Mandala Research to “bring enhanced consumer research to travel agencies” via development of “a series of consumer studies and webinars focusing on niches and trends that agents can use to strengthen their marketing efforts and increase sales.”

Another release reported about a legal symposium that featured Department of Transportation aviation enforcement counsel Samuel Podberesky, industry attorney (and Travel Weekly columnist) Mark Pestronk and ASTA’s senior vice president of legal and industry affairs, Paul Ruden, to discuss current and pending regulatory and legal issues.

Previous to that, I received notice that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood himself had addressed ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Council, composed of the largest ASTA agencies and leaders of agency groups, including major online travel agencies.

Two years ago, I had noted that ASTA appeared to be rebounding and that its efforts on behalf of agents, both in terms of providing agency resources and increasing effectiveness in lobbying, were getting real traction. These recent press releases seemed to signal that the bar was being raised again.

ASTA’s new CEO, Tony Gonchar, has been on the job since December, and I phoned him last week to ask whether there was a specific campaign to raise the level of sophistication in the programs that ASTA was providing to its members.

His answer surprised me: Not particularly.

“We want to provide intelligent guidance and public policy and legal affairs information in a very respectful way,” he said. “But at the same time, we can’t turn our backs on the core base that operates as traditional travel agents. We need to serve the entire community while leading and taking things forward.”

Gonchar, who came out of Microsoft and spent time with Virtuoso, believes that there are segments of the agency community that do not utilize basic technology that could boost their efforts significantly.

“The industry lags on the tech side, but that’s an opportunity,” he said. “A new Nacta agent can benefit from a $500 productivity tool from Microsoft.

Agents focus on maximizing the experience they deliver to customers, which is great, but they also have the opportunity to step up their degree of utilization of technology and increase business as a result.”

We spoke for 30 minutes about agent opportunities, and he convinced me he was as focused on the neediest of his members as his most sophisticated; he clearly picked up on member feedback that previous leadership was too focused on the CAC members at the expense of the rank-and-file.

But throughout the discussion, I got the strong sense that Gonchar respects the entire range of membership and has a good grasp on the task before him: Set higher expectations for everyone, and gather data to prove agents’ value.

“What I think about agents, and what ASTA thinks about agents, doesn’t really matter,” he said in response to my questions about respect for agents. “If the blogosphere thinks agents are Luddites, we need to change that perception.”

And to change, to the extent it exists, that reality.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @awtravelweekly.

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