We were pleased to hear from ASTA last week that it is launching a national membership drive, but we were surprised to hear the Society characterize the effort as a "first." Surely, we said, ASTA has done this before?

But a check with our memory banks and with ASTA confirms that if it's not the first membership drive in ASTA's 80-year history, it's at least a first for the current ASTA leadership and staff, including those with the longest memories.

If there's any bad news here, it is that ASTA may have been neglecting the important task of recruiting in recent years. But the upside is that ASTA is doing something about it.

ASTA CEO Tony Gonchar is all too correct when he complains that many agents get a free ride on ASTA's legislative and lobbying efforts.

Even though we disagree with ASTA on some policy issues, we cannot overstate the importance to this industry of having a strong national organization with a voice that can be heard in state capitals, in Congress, at the Transportation Department and other government agencies and in the national media.

If that voice is weakened by declining membership, the damage isn't limited to ASTA as an organization. Nonmembers suffer too.

The growth of consortia, cooperatives and other agency groups in recent years has given travel sellers multiple avenues to take advantage of supplier relationships, networking opportunities, technology support, educational programs and other benefits frequently offered by trade associations such as ASTA. If this challenge has been getting more and more acute, an aggressive recruiting drive is clearly warranted.

But in addition to recruiting new members, we think it is vitally important for ASTA to continue to find ways to reserve prime benefits for members and members only.

ASTA will always be performing some services that benefit all agents or all agency clients, but more than ever it must find ways to deliver greater value to the members who foot the bill.

As airlines and other suppliers capped, cut and eliminated commissions over the last two decades, agents were told that they had to place a greater value on their services and charge fees. One oft-repeated bit of advice was that "your expertise and your personal service are your greatest assets. Stop giving them away."

Though it took some buyers a while to catch on, it was pretty good advice.
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