'Reinvented' ASTA convention drawing crowds once again

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The trade show floor was packed at the ASTA Global Convention in San Diego last month.
The trade show floor was packed at the ASTA Global Convention in San Diego last month.

Attendance at the ASTA Global Convention has been on the rise in recent years, which the Society largely attributes to striking a number of partnerships with suppliers and consortia that either mandate or subsidize memberships for agents.

In recent years, ASTA has been working to "reinvent" its convention, said president and CEO Zane Kerby.

"There's barely any physical proof that a trade association exists other than when you get together and the feeling that happens when you bring a community together. That's how you know it exists," said Kerby, who joined ASTA in 2013. "Otherwise, you're just a shadowy group in Washington that might make bad things not happen every once in a while."

That reinvention has helped bolster numbers. In 2014, the convention drew 431 attendees when it was held aboard the Norwegian Breakaway. In 2015 in Washington, the conference drew 850 attendees. The following year, it drew 739, a dip largely attributed to its location in Reno, Nev. This year, the ASTA Global Convention drew 1,003 attendees in San Diego.

With the 2018 Global Convention headed back to Washington, Kerby said he expects another bump in attendees.

For the past several years, ASTA's education steering committee has worked to create better programming for conference attendees, which Kerby said he believes has played a role in the rise in attendance.

He said he also suspects the growing number of home-based agents is playing a role. The convention gives them a sense of community and a chance to network, he said, and this year's show saw an uptick in the number of independent contractors (ICs) who attended.

However, a "key part" of the convention's growth, Kerby said, has been agency network partnerships that have either subsidized or mandated ASTA membership as well as a push from those networks encouraging their members to get involved in the Society. They are also holding events and meetings of their own concurrently with the global convention, further buoying attendance.

The partnerships began several years ago. In 2014, MAST Travel Network began subsidizing ASTA membership for its agencies, reducing the cost of membership. Then, in the same year, Signature Travel Network mandated that all members join ASTA, a move quickly followed by the Travel Leaders Franchise Group.

Other networks, such as the Leisure Travel Alliance and American Marketing Group, parent of Travelsavers and the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel, have also begun subsidizing membership in some way.

Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network, said the Society was in a tough spot around 2010, when he was a board member. It was losing money and in a bad financial position, he said, and show attendance had fallen. Today, though, the Society is "solidly in the black," and outreach to the industry has paid off.

Block said, "Everyone, I think, is starting to realize that ASTA is truly the only group that's there to lobby -- but also inform -- regulators, congressmen and state legislators about the economics of a travel agency: why we are pro-consumer, pro-traveler, and how the various legislative activities and/or regulatory activities impact consumers."

Several years ago, Block said, ASTA held a meeting with consortia leaders, talking about the importance of the Society.

"The consortia stepped up, because the consortia really aren't geared for lobbying," he said.

Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network, agreed.

"[ASTA does] everything I don't want to do, to put it plainly: the regulatory stuff, the advocacy on the Hill and in state legislatures," Sharpe said. "All that stuff that we're ill-prepared to do as consortia, they do and have an unbelievable track record."

ASTA has also been making a more recent push with host agencies, evidenced by a growing number of ICs who have become members and are attending the conference, Kerby said. The Society recently introduced a membership category just for ICs, costing $199, and 600 have since joined.

Last fall, Nexion implemented a program offering monthly payments of $17 for ASTA membership and inviting ASTA staff to speak at its conventions, boosting new memberships. This year, KHM and Uniglobe were honored as ASTA's host agencies of the year for their recruitment efforts.

"I think that everyone can feel that ASTA has a good team here in Washington and that we're attracting great agents to our network," Kerby said. "So they're willing to step in and invest."

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