It would appear, on the surface, that last week's TheTradeShow was attempting to be all things to all people: a consumer travel show, a travel agent trade show, a pan-association gathering, a destination showcase and an educational/training conference complete with ship inspections.

"It is very different," said Bill Maloney, executive secretary of ASTA, which took top billing among the multiple industry producers and sponsors. "It had to be different. ASTA World Travel Congress was dying. We had to stop producing 'The Lawrence Welk Show.' "

I have sympathy for Maloney and the challenges he faced last week. And faces still. It would appear that among the multitude of constituents he is trying to please, there are a multitude of suggestions that seem to conflict sharply with one another.

Some agents expressed unhappiness that consumers were allowed in on the first day of the event. They called it "Agent Bypass Day" and complained that it was providing a forum for suppliers to solicit business directly.

At least one supplier had a different take, and it wasn't the consumers who bothered him.

"Agents should not be allowed on the floor on that day," said Art Jimenez, director of leisure sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "A lot of them came in on Sunday, walked the show, and that was it. They played the rest of the time."

His opinion, incidentally, may count a bit more than those of other suppliers. TheTradeShow is moving to Las Vegas next year, and the LVCVA is going to be more than marginally involved. The event has a 13-year biennial commitment to Las Vegas.

Maloney's reaction to agent complaints about consumers on the show floor revealed some frustration.

"We need to bring something new to suppliers," he said, "and we benefit [from consumer presence] because, guess what: They see that travel agents are still here. And we don't need to worry about supplier-direct. Do these agents really believe that consumers will go into the show and, for the first time, be finding out about Avis and Hertz?

"The show is designed for enlightened suppliers and well-connected agents," he continued. "I heard an agent complain that we had invited Rick Steves (a consumer guidebook writer) rather than having industry speakers. But consumers don't know (outgoing ASTA President) Kathy Sudeikis; they know Rick Steves. The question agents should be asking themselves is: How do I get Rick Steves into my life? How do I leverage this opportunity?"

Some agents were creative in taking advantage of consumer day. They brought consumers to the Sabre booth to show them how agents use the GDS to save clients money. One local agent arrived with clients in tow and walked the floor with them.

"I'm taking them shopping," she said.

And though I spoke with several suppliers who grumbled about the show being "slow," there were also many who seemed pleased. Teri Lightfield, general manager of Ya'lla Tours USA, left the conference with five new groups in hand. Michaela Klare, regional manager of the Americas for the German National Tourist Office, said it exceeded her expectations.

Some suppliers expressed impatience and frustration that "ASTA still doesn't get it," but a sizeable number concurred with Jimenez when he said:

"It's 100% better than last year. It's better than I expected. It's not where it needs to be, but the needle's moving in the right direction."

Maloney seemed to be monitoring the feedback. He said he was "grateful" for the participation of cruise lines but also indicated he knew they would reserve most of their energy for CLIA's trade show. Going forward, it seemed clear he would be focusing on tourist boards and tour operators.

"The real star is destinations," he said. "We want to be a focal point for national tourist organizations. We had a special session for them. They can schedule their North American strategy around this show.

"And tour operators are getting their asses kicked by cruise lines. Some of the groups that agents are putting on cruise ships, they can put on tours. We can help them educate agents about that."

In other words, with one TheTradeShow under his belt, Maloney hinted that he plans, to some extent, to follow the advice he's been giving travel agents: Stop trying to be all things to all people. Specialize and target.

As Jimenez noted, the needle's moving in the right direction.


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