Arnie WeissmannIll give lip service to the importance of international travel as a way of increasing product knowledge, but in reality I think exploring a foreign destination is the single best perk of working in the travel industry.

I was disappointed in December 2002 when ASTA announced that it would not have out-of-country Congresses after Montreal in 2005. And those feelings stirred again soon after I arrived in Hong Kong last week. Its such a terrific destination -- why not continue to serve up world-class international venues as Congress sites? The stated rationale for staying domestic (and alternating between Las Vegas and Orlando) was that it was part of the necessary right-sizing of the organization following the industry downturn after 9/11.

I felt at that time that it was an overreaction to commit only to domestic destinations at that point and believed that when the economic environment improved, the industry would be willing to make the time and spend the money to travel abroad.

But now that the 2004 Congress is drawing to a close, Im reconsidering my position. On one hand, 2004 has been a year of recovery for the industry, with most suppliers and agents saying theyre experiencing strong sales. But despite 2004 being a good year, suppliers didnt show up in large numbers in Hong Kong -- the trade show was small, and many companies that had sent senior officials last year were represented by only lower-level employees in Hong Kong.

Though its a travel agent organization, ASTA needs strong supplier attendance at the Congress -- a significant portion of its anticipated revenues come from World Congress trade show profits. Were suppliers staying home because it was in Hong Kong, or because they are still cautious about spending, or because they feel there has been erosion in the value of the travel agent channel?

Its probably caution. In general, the pendulum appears to be swinging back in the direction of agency appreciation, but there are still lingering concerns about spending among suppliers.

When I spoke to ASTA Executive Vice President Bill Maloney in Hong Kong, he backed the association away from earlier statements that suggested the domestic-only policy was permanent. The organization has signed contracts that commit it to the domestic path through 2011, but we can always review this again, he said.

He pointed out that even if members express a willingness to go abroad there are additional complexities.

A host country wants the focus to be on them, he said. They dont particularly like it when an agent spends time at the trade show talking to a Bermuda or domestic destination reps, he said.

To satisfy agents desires to see foreign lands (and the desire of tourism officials of foreign lands to see U.S. travel agents), ASTA began what it calls International Invitationals, which are educational fam trips. One is slated for Prague in 2005.

I hope ASTAs decision to meet closer to home will be re-evaluated frequently. There may come a point where agent interest in visiting the same two destinations year after year wanes, and if so, there may be fewer agents signing up.

The bottom line is that agents will again want to go where their clients are traveling, and if they do so in large numbers, suppliers will follow.

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