The resignation of former ASTA CEO Tony Gonchar two months before the annual Travel Retailing and Destination Expo, held earlier this month in Los Angeles, could not have been welcome news for the organization's officers, staff or membership.
Gonchar continued the momentum of the organization's most successful initiatives, notably the Premium Membership category, Corporate Advisory Council (CAC) and Young Professionals Society while launching new efforts to improve agency efficiencies through technology and to strengthen ASTA's lobbying voice.
By many measures, the Society has been making progress over the past decade. Although the establishment of the Premium and CAC categories rankled some rank-and-file members, they were nonetheless well-served by the influence these new groups brought to discussions with suppliers and Capitol Hill. And the catalog of resources available to smaller agents through ASTA's website has improved significantly, providing a library of first-rate and relevant training, education and information services.
ASTA has held on to tenured employees such as Paul Ruden, Cheryl Ahearn and Kristina Rundquist and has also brought in fresh voices such as lobbyist Eben Peck. Their flexibility and thoughtfulness continue to serve the organization well. Its elected leadership over the past decade has, by and large, been strong and forward-thinking.
Yet, despite a decade of significant achievement, ASTA continues to face significant challenges. It has yet to find stable financial footing or convince the industry at large of its ongoing relevance.
As it searches for a new CEO, it has to undergo both a structural reanalysis and re-evaluation of purpose in concert with a road map toward financial stability. A tall order.
During the expo, a few things seemed clear to me. Travel agents retain a reservoir of goodwill from most suppliers, but even among those who have been very supportive of ASTA, there is a growing sense that ASTA cannot deliver access to numbers of quality agents outside the Premium and CAC categories. An incoming CEO will face a supplier community impatient for change.
What I also saw were pockets of energy and excitement. Reports I heard from attendees of the closed-door Premium Member Summit, held off-site during the Expo, were that the 75 representatives held a meaningful discussion centering on lobbying and government affairs.
Separately, the black-tie Advocacy Dinner was an impressive event that pulled in a who's who of agents and suppliers.
Members of the Young Professionals Society with whom I spoke told me about the benefits of peer-to-peer communication via an internal communications network, primarily virtual, that is largely of their own making.
I witnessed the birth of the Hispanic Caucus, which came together with much enthusiasm, energy and optimism about tapping into the growing market of Americans with Spanish-speaking heritage.
While I did not arrive early enough to attend the meeting of the National Association of Career Travel Agents, ASTA's affiliate of home-based agents, I did attend a meeting of the group held in conjunction with Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld and Home Based Agent Show in Seattle last June and observed a well-attended meeting with compelling content and smart leadership.
What I believe I am observing is the Balkanization of ASTA into smaller, energized groups of agents with common interests. It's a natural reflection of the vast changes that have occurred in the travel agency channel over the past 17 or so years, and I am wondering if ASTA's next leadership should more fully embrace this trend and support its acceleration.
Perhaps ASTA should become a holding company, an umbrella for independent organizations that, speaking their own (literal and figurative) languages, would be responsible for their own recruitment, dues and agenda. A tiered, committee, chapter and caucus structure would be replaced by interest- and geography-based subsidiaries that would operate independently, with ASTA providing administrative efficiencies and a national voice as needed.
Decentralization is already occurring de facto, but if it is not acknowledged by a formal restructuring, there will be unnecessary costs on the books.
U.S. Travel is an example of an industry organization that underwent radical change and came out stronger. As it approached a tipping point of irrelevance, it pared down its range of offerings, focused on advocacy and gained newfound respect.
ASTA has not yet gone over the tipping point, but it is approaching it. The next CEO -- and, importantly, the board -- must be willing to consider the radical.
Correction: ASTA does not require Premium members to be $50 million businesses.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.