A young agent provocateur has plans to shake up ASTA

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Jason ColemanWithin ASTA, a trade association struggling to survive structural and cultural changes within the industry that have resulted in dwindling membership and revenue, a number of stalwarts are looking to Jason Coleman as a catalyst for change.

Coleman, the 36-year-old immediate past president of the Young Professionals Society, the president of SoCal ASTA and the 2010 ASTA Young Professional of the Year, is now a director at large on the Society's board.

In last month's ASTA election, he challenged incumbent president Nina Meyer, then withdrew from the race at the last minute in the interest of unity. But his candidacy included a platform -- some dubbed it a manifesto -- that amounted to an in-depth analysis of the challenges ASTA faces, along with his ideas for meeting those challenges.

Coleman is passionate about both retail travel and ASTA, and he has the kind of energy that attracts and inspires others. Among the inspired is Ryan McGredy, owner of Moraga Travel, current president of the Young Professionals Society and a new entrant to retail travel.

"The primary reason I became involved in ASTA is because of Jason," McGredy said. He met Coleman on a Young Professionals Society fam trip and said Coleman's enthusiasm brought out "the best in people."

Steve Powers, owner of Hidden Treasures Tours, president of the Long Island chapter of ASTA and immediate past president of the Chapter Presidents Council, described Coleman as "one of the most dynamic individuals in ASTA right now."

When Powers ran for the Chapter Presidents Council two years ago, part of his campaign pitch was that it was time that ASTA "stop giving lip service to Jason and take his ideas seriously, because he represents the future of this industry."

"And they have," he said recently of ASTA's board.

Coleman, whose first job was with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington-based advocacy group, laid out his proposals in a platform outlining ASTA's future, which he presented at the board meeting at the conclusion of TheTradeShow.

That platform, more than 50 pages long, addressed not just changes within the industry but changes within society at large.

A time-crunched world

"ASTA hasn't kept pace," he said in an interview last month. And to bring it up to date, he is questioning many of ASTA's core structures, from its annual meeting to its regional chapter structure.

For one thing, Coleman argued, ASTA is a volunteer organization that needs to adapt to the realities of a time-crunched world. (One ironic example of that time crunch was the fact that many board members had not read Coleman's platform/manifesto, so Coleman suggested they read just the executive summary.)

Agents will no longer join out of a sense of professional obligation, Coleman asserted. ASTA has to deliver value that justifies the time and money its members invest in it. Advocacy, while essential, is not enough to bring back into the fold agents who are looking for relevancy in their trade association.

Coleman, who joined ASTA in 2006, said the Society must place a priority on finding out what agents want. Then, it has to figure out how to appeal to agents and agencies of all sizes, models and generations.

While he praised ASTA's mission statement, he offered several suggestions for ways to improve it.

"ASTA has a very strong mission statement about protecting the industry and sharing knowledge," he said. "But does that mean we have to do a trade show?"

In effect, he was reiterating a point made by former ASTA CEO Tony Gonchar, who argued that the conference component of ASTA's struggling annual meeting was competing with the trade shows of various consortia and preferred suppliers.

Coleman said that the trade show portion of ASTA's TheTradeShow is weak and is damaging ASTA's brand. However, he said, events at the conference -- for example, the meeting of the National Association of Career Travel Agents (Nacta), the Premium member meeting and the Hispanic Task Force, run jointly with the National Tour Association -- were all successful.

For that reason, he emphasized, "It is important for ASTA to have an annual meeting. It brings together all segments of the travel industry under one roof. You have independent agents rubbing elbows with big executives at the Advocacy Dinner."

Even so, he said, ASTA has to look at different models and recognize that people, particularly younger agents, network differently today than was the case in the past. While face-to-face meetings are still important to Coleman's generation, he said, they tend to then maintain the resulting relationships with virtual networking.

"We really have to adjust expectations and find a way for ASTA to be unique that doesn't step on the toes of what everyone else is doing," he said.

He pointed to ASTA's International Destination Expo as the perfect example of an event that succeeds because it is unique.

A career development crisis

Coleman said that while he believes ASTA's mission statement is strong, it is missing what should be an essential plank in its platform: career development.

"We all know that there is a crisis about it," he said. "The question is: Who is doing something about it?"

While there has been some effort in this direction undertaken by individual groups, Coleman said ASTA should lead in the career development arena. If the industry fails to inaugurate programs and systems now, he said, there won't be an ASTA in 10 or 15 years because there won't be any agents to support it.

The Young Professionals Society, he said, is focusing on career promotion and looking at using career fairs to help attract young talent to the industry.

He also believes strongly that ASTA should revisit its chapter structure.

"A chapter's biggest strength is its opportunity to bring together professionals on a local level," he said. The problem, he said, is that "we have a lot of chapters that are multistate," which runs counter to that strength.

Coleman proposed looking at decentralizing chapters so they can be more effective both as networking vehicles and as legislative lobbying vehicles.

As an example, he pointed to ASTA's Southwest chapter, which includes New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. If there's a hot legislative issue in one state and the chapter head is from another state, he said, that chapter president has no clout when he or she calls legislators. What's more, get-togethers for chapters whose members are spread hundreds of miles apart just doesn't happen. In contrast, he said, Nacta's chapters are organized around metropolitan areas.

But he is also adamant that not every aspect of ASTA be local. Chapters, he said, should share information about their members with ASTA headquarters, so that the Society knows where it has talent to tap. There should also be a centralized registration system for chapter meetings.

"We have 25 different systems for registering people," he said. "If we had more information about our members, if headquarters wasn't the only body collecting information, that could be part of a very robust database that would be very valuable for program creation, providing research and information to suppliers."

In other words, ASTA could evolve into a valuable storehouse of data about travel agents.

"We have to be much more nimble than we have been in the past," he said.

Alluding to 2007, when ASTA announced a "revitalization" that included restructuring its membership and streamlining functions, he insisted that the Society does not have the luxury of waiting years to make changes.

"We have lost too many people," he said.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.

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