fter the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace, his mansion on Ocean Boulevard in South Beach was sold to a high-tech zillionaire, who now lives behind high walls in rococo splendor under the Miami Beach sun.

Perhaps it's loneliness, perhaps it's avarice, perhaps it's just a way to meet the mortgage payment, but word has leaked out that he will turn the unused parts of his home into a private club.

There are no other details available, but the response has been enormous. He has been besieged by inquiries and, even more impressively, blank checks, accompanied by notes saying that the sender wishes to be a member, and the recipient should simply fill in the blanks with whatever amount the dues happen to be.

American Express held a breakfast at the mansion during ASTA's World Travel Congress last month, with ASTA president Richard Copland and executive vice president Bill Maloney in attendance. The duo, struggling with a declining trend in membership, could only dream about what it might mean for membership if ASTA moved its headquarters into the building. (Of course, to capitalize on the move, they'd have to open membership categories for swamp developers, drug lords and Eurotrash.)

Alas, their options limited, they have instead focused on independents and home-based agents, and in the first nine months of 2003 enrolled 1,800 new members, about 400 more than the previous two years combined. Having now tapped into these markets, there aren't many expansion opportunities left, so they've turned their attention to shoring up areas where they're obviously weak.

And most obvious to anyone attending ASTA functions in the past few years is the scarcity of young members. For the most part, the young turks in the association when I started attending functions in the late 1980s are still the young turks. According to the ASTAnet Web site, there are more than five times as many members of ASTA's "25 Year Club" (members who have been with the organization for 25 years or more) than are in its Young Professionals Society (YPS), comprising ASTA members 40 years old or younger.

ASTA, incidentally, is not alone in having difficulty attracting youth to its ranks -- Gen-Xers and subsequent generational waves apparently are not "joiners" and the aging phenomenon is occurring in associations generally.

ASTA recently received $7,500 from Thrifty Car Rental to support YPS. Staff liaison Cheryl Ahearn said the money will be used to create a YPS area on the ASTAnet Web site and identify, create and market educational benefits, particularly in the areas of career counseling and building professionalism. Ahearn said links would not be restricted to travel-oriented educational programs, but might include helpful career information designed for a more general audience.

While I think it's great that ASTA will be providing younger members with specific benefits, I think there's an even more important opportunity present. I think that YPS, as a group, can help ASTA more than ASTA can help them.

Among those over 40, ASTA members are divided between those who are rooted in the past and those who are living in the present. Those rooted in the past not only hinder the organization's progress, but they make the organization very unattractive to new blood. A young agency owner who has a successful Web component in her business and never collected a penny in base airline commission does not want to join an organization whose members still are complaining about the way airlines screwed them.

Those under 40 are very much standing in the present, but represent only a tiny minority of ASTA's leadership (Kari Thomas and Chris Russo, both chapter officers, are YPS members).

There are few technical barriers to prevent a young ASTA member from rising to power fairly quickly. Although one must be a chapter officer before becoming an area director, one need only be a voting member of ASTA for two years before running for an executive committee position (the only exception being the presidency -- in reaction to Mike Spinelli's jumping from the board to the presidency, the rules were changed requiring a term on the executive committee first).

To the three stated purposes of YPS -- "networking, education and career development" -- I would add a fourth: activism. Without taking a position on specific issues, ASTA staff could encourage involvement in the association's political system.

If a subagenda of YPS is to attract more young agents into ASTA, it couldn't hurt to see one of their own in a national office. That would strengthen the membership in general even more than holding meetings in a designer's dream house.


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