50 years after founding, MAST Travel Network thriving

MAST Travel Network marks its 25th anniversary at its annual conference in 1994.
MAST Travel Network marks its 25th anniversary at its annual conference in 1994.

The year was 1969, a time of change in the world as well as in travel. The Concorde first took to the air; Pan Am was still a year away from inaugurating New York-London service on its 747. Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth 2 made its maiden voyage.

It also was the year that some 20 to 30 travel agency owners in Chicago formed MAST Travel Network, a regional consortium. 

Despite the changing face of the industry and rampant consolidation in the years since then, MAST remains a stalwart presence in the Midwest and beyond. Today, it is home to 225 agency locations.

"We think that we're very relevant and have a long future ahead of us despite being a smaller organization," said John Werner, president and COO of MAST, which will celebrate its golden anniversary later this year. "We have no design on being an organization that's a few thousand agencies — we don't ever see us like that — but we will continue to grow."

MAST timeline

1969: Midwest Agents Selling Travel founded in Chicago by a group of 20 to 30 travel agency owners.

1995: Reaches membership peak prior to airline commission caps, subsequent commission cuts and post-9/11 drop in business.

2000: Converted from a nonprofit association to a for-profit corporation.

2005: Members vote to keep MAST independent. The board of directors stops pursuing a merger with other industry groups.

2014: Becomes the first consortium to start an ASTA membership program.

2016: MAST Sales Sensation, launched in the 1990s as MAST-O-Rama, becomes the largest travel trade event in the Midwest, MAST says. 

MAST, headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., near Chicago, is one of the few regional consortia left in the U.S. Werner counts the Western Association of Travel Agencies, known as Westa, and the Leisure Travel Alliance as peers. The three have survived consolidation that rolled up many regional consortia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Werner is a former agency owner who joined MAST in 2000 and was named its head in 2002. 

To stay alive and relevant, Werner said, MAST focused on what set it apart from its fellow consortia. 

"We set about building a brand so that MAST would have a brand identity and brand attributes that could not be found anywhere else," Werner said. "Because I felt that if we were to look and act like everybody else, then we would just end up getting absorbed into one of the bigger organizations."

Part of that identity is staying small. At its peak, MAST had about 350 member agency locations. That number was whittled down by the commission cuts of the 1990s and the effects that the 9/11 attacks had on the travel industry.

In the time after those events, Werner said MAST members did consider joining a larger organization.

"We voted on it and decided that we wanted to remain independent and that we were going to stick together and rebuild the group, the organization, and that's exactly what happened," he said. "There are a lot of people that just believed in what we could do independently."

Since then, sales have grown, and membership has been on an uptick.

When the organization was founded, "The original objective was just to have more clout being a collective organization," Werner said. 

While that still remains part of the consortium business today, the groups, including MAST, have evolved to offer much more. First came education, training and networking in the early years, Werner said. Then, consortia started to embark upon marketing initiatives in the 1990s. That space would get progressively more detailed and sophisticated over the years, especially as the internet, and later, social media became commonplace. 

"As the changes in society and the way that we can communicate have evolved, the consortiums have offered all of those things and have adapted and incorporated all those different channels into their marketing activities for their members," Werner said.

Werner said the secret sauce behind MAST's continued success is the community atmosphere he and members have worked to cultivate.

"We wanted people to feel like they were important," he said. "Everybody contributed to each other's success and the total success of the organization in some way. It didn't matter if you were a big agency or a small agency, everybody makes a contribution and was made to feel that way."

Royal Caribbean International’s Vicki Freed speaking to MAST members at the June 2011 Owners Summit. Formed in 1969, MAST is one of a select few regional consortia that has resisted the gravitational pull of consolidation.
Royal Caribbean International’s Vicki Freed speaking to MAST members at the June 2011 Owners Summit. Formed in 1969, MAST is one of a select few regional consortia that has resisted the gravitational pull of consolidation.

There are four pillars, as Werner calls them, that help set MAST apart today.

First, the group is goal-oriented and focused on selling only its preferred suppliers.

"They understand the importance of selling preferred suppliers and what that means to the profitability of their agency and the organization as a whole," Werner said. Members are also rewarded for selling preferred suppliers with perks and benefits, like savings on their annual MAST membership fee.

The second pillar is ensuring that each agency is seen as the travel brand and the expert that its community looks to when planning travel. Third is offering customized solutions for each member, and fourth is MAST's internal community atmosphere.

"They learn from each other," he said of MAST members. "Obviously, they also learn a lot from the things that MAST does or the suppliers provide, but they also learn a lot from each other. There's a lot of sharing."

That sense of community is not lost on members.

Da Rosa Travel in Skokie, Ill., has been a member of MAST for 40 years, owner Gavin Da Rosa said. Because of MAST's regional nature, its events are well attended by members, he said. Members are also dedicated enough to take the time out of their schedules to attend MAST events, Da Rosa added.

Elm Grove Travel in Elm Grove, Wis., joined MAST 48 years ago, vice president Jenny Cagle said. At the time, Cagle's aunt, Joan Hollenstein, was a part owner of the agency and joined to expand the network of agencies she was exposed to.

"MAST was appealing to us and has remained appealing to us because it is regional," said Cagle, who will attain ownership of the agency this March when her mother, Sue Hollenstein (who got involved in the agency in 1979), retires. "A lot of the people have similar business layouts and similar clientele and similar philosophies, so we've always enjoyed that part of it."

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