The American Society of Travel Agents is no more. In a break with long tradition, the organization's board of directors voted to officially change the name of our most prominent advocacy organization to the American Society of Travel Advisors. It is, I think, important to note that the board voted unanimously for this change.
The handwriting had been on the wall as members noted that the name of the Society's magazine had been changed to "Travel Advisor."
Go back a decade to my columns on this subject and you will understand my sense of pleasure that ASTA has rounded this particular bend. Most of us are not "agents" of the airlines. Most of us are not order-takers. Most of us no longer feel we have a right to hang a shingle on our door proclaiming we do it all equally well. In fact, for most of us, the door no longer exists.
There are some members of ASTA who resisted the change. I received a fair number of letters over the years expressing resentment at my characterization of the term "travel agent" as being both outmoded and, for some practitioners, a tad insulting. Remember the bumper stickers you would see announcing to the world that "Travel Agents Do It for Free?"
ASTA has never been big on name changes. I note that the organization was formed by 61 agents long before I came into this world. ASTA predates World War II and was not born in the protective cradle of proprietary technology.
If you go back to the original founding principles, you have to be struck by its original goals of "maintaining a dignified code of ethics, combating unfair competition, while promoting and protecting the mutual interests of its members."
I have long believed that each of us, every man, woman and child, ought to have our own personal holidays. We ought to choose events and people who are important to us and design some sort of holiday that we acknowledge year to year.
Jason Robards did that in the movie "A Thousand Clowns." He did not go to work on the birthday of the owner of his favorite New York deli. If you can't celebrate a great pastrami sandwich, he believed, life is meaningless and impersonal. So, in that spirit, those of us who value our profession and our standards might raise a glass every April 20 to salute ASTA's launch in 1931 as the American Steamboat and Tourist Agents Association.
There was a reason for that name. In the 1930s, the vast majority of staterooms in the thriving steamship industry were booked by agents. Only about 10% of these bookings were made directly. ASTA was formed to make sure that this did not change.
The founders also took on the challenge of convincing other sectors of the travel industry like hotels and railroads to work with agents.
Just as these goals were taking hold, World War II came along, and travel for the purpose of pleasure became a rarity. People were only traveling where they needed to go. ASTA was struggling.
The end of the war brought hope and the formation of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). As one of its earliest acts, IATA cut agent commissions from the then-standard 7.5% to 5%. The battle lines were drawn.
I am struck, as I am sure you are, by the goals ASTA set out in 1931 and the challenges faced today by myriad alternative booking mechanisms, some gimmicks and some as great a threat to the retail adviser as one can imagine. (Jeff Bezos hasn't even suited up for this game yet. Amazon will, I believe, become a major travel player going forward.)
ASTA has its work cut out for it in the years to come. But recognizing the difference between a travel agent and a travel adviser is the first, best way to prepare the kind of defensive strategy we will need in a future where travel could well be more virtual than real.
I have long taken the position that we would never advance very far as a profession unless we were able to develop terminology that best expresses what we do. We need to convey this to a public that was ready to accept our demise following our "defeat" by the internet. We were, you may recall, labeled "dinosaurs."
There are several terms that are far more accurate than travel agent. "Adviser" is one. "Consultant" is another. Some of my readers prefer the more explicit "travel planner." There are travel agents who now call themselves "travel concierges" and others who are "dream makers." At my firm, we refer to ourselves as "Merchants of Travel -- Purveyors of Dreams."
We all share one characteristic: an overriding belief that travel is best planned by a consultant who has been there, as opposed to a computer that hasn't.
For me, the terminology has always been confusing. What are we really trying to communicate to the public? Why are we hell-bent on confusing them?
A travel agent follows your instructions. A travel agent is a booking machine. Travel agents usually represent the full spectrum of travel products. They can book you through Atlanta on Delta or book you across the Atlantic on Cunard. Many agents wear headsets because they are viscerally connected to a GDS. That is their lifeblood.
But here's the thing: Travel agents are being -- and will continue to be -- replaced by computers.
Think of the person selling tickets in the movie theater. They are movie agents. They will ticket you for any movie you choose, even one starring Vin Diesel. But they are being replaced by ticket kiosks just as check-ins at airports are being handled by ticketing machines.
An evolving vocation
I think there is a progression of roles for the contemporary travel professional of the kind ASTA represents.
The second stage, beyond agent, is the travel consultant. Consultant is a term with many implications, the most important being the notion that vacation options will be discussed; the consultant is well trained in his or her area, selling professional, advice-based travel. The consumer has someone to talk with and can strategize vacation plans. The term consultant also gets us into the arena where we need to be. We are similar to real estate agents who listen to clients' wants and needs. An interior decorator is a consultant; so is a college counselor and your local banker.
But, as Matthew Upchurch of Virtuoso has long advocated, there is a third, higher-level travel professional to which we all must aspire. The third level, beyond "agent" and "consultant," is the "trusted adviser."
That should be our endgame. The trusted adviser is, I believe, a highly valued family friend whose advice on how to spend the most important moments of one's life is measured, professional and truly personalized.
The trusted travel adviser stands alongside the family physician, attorney and financial planner in terms of value to the family, a knowledgeable source for the very highest levels of advice and trust.
I congratulate Zane Kerby and the ASTA board for their courageous and important decision. For far too many years, the professionals in our industry have been reticent to compare their role to that of other highly-respected professions.
My average client spends more with me in a year than he or she does with their physician or attorney. We are the guides to our planet and, in a sense, its custodians. We can and should be proud of what we do. ASTA has made an important step forward with this name change.