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ASTA Replies (partially) to Criticism

 
  Here is some correspondence between ASTA (the American Society of Travel Agents) and myself, plus some other comments about ASTA from other travel agents.  Feel free to send in your own thoughts, too.

I have several times in the past referred negatively to ASTA, most recently in my newsletters of 21 June 02 and 28 June 02, where I respectively said :

[21 June] ASTA catching up with ARTA - but three months late!  Almost immediately after the airlines zeroed out agency commissions in March, the smaller US agency association, ARTA, came up with some innovative programs to assist their member agencies still get commissions by arranging for tickets to be issued in foreign countries (where the US carriers continue to pay commissions!).  Now, three months later, ASTA is coming out with a similar program.  Question to the travel agents who read this :  Which group do you think is more pro-active in helping you in these difficult times!

and

[28 June] ASTA turns its back on small travel agencies?  Travel agency consolidation will continue and many "smaller agencies are going to fall by the wayside," an ASTA official said. Cheryl Ahearn, ASTA's senior vice president of market development, made the comments as part of a panel on multichannel distribution at the recent Travel Commerce Conference & Expo in New York.  Many single locations are not going to survive, Ahearn said, noting that the trend is for agencies to affiliate themselves with larger groups. Hmmm - not reported were any suggestions or practical help that ASTA is offering to its smaller member agencies!  As I've observed before, ARTA is doing all it can to help its travel agency members, but ASTA seems to be much more passive, while the travel industry changes all around it.  Yet again, I urge travel agent readers to consider joining and supporting ARTA as the industry's leading organization.

On Friday 28 June, Richard Copland, President of ASTA sent this note in reply.

[28 June] I recently read in The Travel Insider, your comments concerning the comments of Cheryl Ahearn, who was quoted as remarking during the Travel Commerce Conference that "mergers will continue to take place and the smaller agencies are going to fall by the wayside." As an ASTA member and travel agency owner, let me be the first to assure you that ASTA wholeheartedly supports the small travel agency. If you had taken the time to do some research into what programs ASTA has for small businesses, I believe you might be singing a different tune.

Like many things one reads, individual comments can be misunderstood when taken out of context. That said, what Ms. Ahearn said was true--small ARC agencies are closing at a faster rate than large agencies and the small travel agencies that rely primarily on the sale of air tickets are most in danger no matter what ASTA does. While it is true that more travel agencies are merging and more travel agents are closing their storefronts to work out of the home, it is also true that more sellers of travel are entering the market all the time. A fact that ASTA has been quick to point out in the press and to all who will listen.

It was ASTA, not ARTA, that lobbied the government to include financial relief for travel agencies when they passed legislation to aid the airline industry. It was ASTA, not ARTA, that successfully lobbied the Small Business Association (SBA) to include small travel agencies in its Economic Injury Disaster Relief program, and again, it was thanks to the efforts of ASTA that the SBA changed the size standards for travel agencies to include those with annual revenues of up to $3 million, rather than $1 million as was originally set. Thanks to ASTA's efforts, 427 small travel agencies in 48 states and Puerto Rico have received SBA loans, for a total of $21.6 million in disaster loans as of June 25, 2002.

These are only a few of the free services and resources we offer ALL our members regardless of size: On our Members Only side of ASTAnet, there is a wealth of materials designed to help small agencies-from customizable and free advertising materials to teleconferences on coping with and surviving a zero-commission world.

Still, we have been criticized for defending manual reporting at ARC, for attacking the airlines and the GDS when their policies conflict with the growth and development of small business. We have warned, urged, cajoled and taught for seven years now for agents to change. We have highlighted cruise-only, home-based, independent and host agents as new business models to explore and embrace. ASTA's position for some time has been to urge agents to change the focus of their business--diversify, sell more leisure, affiliate with a host agency or work with independent agents, get out of GDS contracts that depend on selling air tickets and instead, sell groups, tours and cruises. It's a fact that small brick-and-mortar agencies, which relied on selling airline tickets, are successfully changing their business mix to focus on other, profitable segments of the industry.

ASTA believes that small businesses that sell travel will survive and prosper. We believe that the old business model is broken, but that there is a future. We have always supported the little guy and we are not going to change. As for our critics, I ask each one of them to look at the big picture and all ASTA has done and continues to do to help the owners of small travel agencies stay prosperous.

I sent the following email back to ASTA the same day.  15 months and more later, and despite repeated references to the correspondence in my weekly newsletter, no further reply has been received.  I wonder why?

[28 June] Thank you for this response, which of course I'll be pleased to feature on my website and in next week's 'Travel Insider' newsletter. It is only fair that you should have a 'right of reply' to my criticisms.

Some follow up items that you may or may not choose to reply to. I don't mean to start this relationship on an adversarial note (although it is probably fair to say that I have already done this!) but in the interests of direct communication, and allowing ASTA to defend itself and reply to both spoken and unspoken criticism (and perhaps misunderstandings and misperceptions) I wonder if you could comment on the points below.

(a) You urge me to take the time to do some research into ASTA's small agency programs.  I was an agency owner and ASTA member for something like ten years - I base my opinions on my own personal experience, but am pleased to revise my opinions at any time, of course.  I have no bias against ASTA and would be delighted to be shown just how helpful ASTA is.  Maybe it is just because ARTA placed me on their media list; but I see a flood of material, daily, from ARTA out to its members, while I see almost no signs of ASTA activity whatsoever.  If you have a media list, perhaps you could add me to it so as to correct this unbalanced perception on my part.

(b) As you're doubtless aware, a common criticism of ASTA is that it is beholden to the airlines and other travel suppliers, rather than being primarily an organization of and for travel agencies.  What percentage of your annual income is obtained from US travel agencies, and what percentage comes either from international agencies or from travel suppliers?

(c) Do you consider the relationship between travel agencies and airlines to now be adversarial or still cooperative and 'partners in travel'?  If you now consider the relationship to be adversarial, does ASTA plan to remove airlines from any form of ASTA affiliation?

(d) What is ASTA doing in response to the latest wave of ADMs from UA for back to back ticketing?  What is the official ASTA policy on back to backs?

(e) ARTA came out with an international travel agency matching program to help its members get commissions on tickets through international agencies within a week or two of the commission cuts.  ASTA only announced a similar program a week or two ago.  Why was ASTA so much slower than ARTA in developing this type of program for its members?

(f) Some people criticise ASTA as being bureaucratic and top heavy.  How many staff are employed by ASTA?  What is ASTA's annual payroll costs?  If you have an ASTA annual report, that would be interesting to read and review.


From a Travel Agent :  "Well said" on your reply to ASTA.  I almost choked on my coffee reading your questions back to them. Can't wait to hear their response, if they do. Keep up the good work.

From a Travel Agent :  Mega-agencies like --- have to take control of their own destiny. We are focused on growth and providing a safe and profitable haven for agencies of all sizes. Suppliers respect size and the ability to move market share. With that comes the ability to be heard and responded to. Unfortunately, ASTA cannot do that for its membership. It's an exciting time out there right now. However, I have never been so optimistic about the future survival of the fittest.

From a Travel Agent :  That wasnít a bad letter from ASTA, was it?  We still belong to them because that gives us access to discounted surety bonds so that we donít have to maintain a letter of credit.  ASTA send out the odd fax, but none of it seems particularly relevant to what we do every day, so I donít actually print them and file them carefully away for further study.

From a Travel Agent :  The ASTA people are probably away for a long weekend, hence no reply. Or maybe heís only just looked up the ASTA payroll numbers and is in a state of shock :)

From a Travel Agent :  I think it would be interesting to find out what really happened to the SBA loans that ASTA talk about. I hear that people that applied had to put up personal property like their homes, etc. I did not qualify, they said my agency was not large enough. And then the airlines went to 0 commission!

From a Travel Agent :  As far as the SBA's are concerned, I am one of those very small agencies in rural Illinois who was fortunate enough to be presented with a loan. It has made a major difference for us in that we have a small fund that keeps us from being hysterical everytime things slow down. I do owe ASTA thanks for this. My manager, however, would agree with most of you out there, she believes ASTA is too connected with the airlines to really serve us. Makes for interesting times in the agency.

From a Travel Agent :  Question b was the best.  I say "follow the money".  ASTA has never been a travel agency organization. They are merely a "mouthpiece" for the airlines.

From a Travel Agent :  The last number I heard was that ASTA receives 70% of its income from suppliers.  It would not surprise me if that is much higher now.

From a Travel Agent :  I own a small travel agency and was a member of ASTA until last year. ASTA began "selling out" agencies when they (1) settled the collusion lawsuit against the airlines for pennies on the dollar, and (2) agreed to destroy all evidence against the airlines when they settled. Try as I might, I just could not figure out what ASTA was doing for me for the membership fee they were charging me. One of my biggest gripes about ASTA was that the board of directors always held their meetings in exotic locales - at the members' expense! Sure, the "T" in ASTA stands for travel, but I always felt that the funds paid by the member agencies could have been spent in more productive ways than subsidizing the board's numerous mini-vacations. To sum it up, I have been ASTA-free for 10 months now, and the only difference I see is the reduction in the expenses section of my P&L!  (David comments - By contrast, ARTA directors travel to their board meetings completely at their own personal expense.)

From a Travel Agent :  I was outraged to get an email solicitation from ASTA trying to sell me a 'service fee report' and an 'automation report' for $40.  For an annual fee of $365, I'd expect ASTA to make these reports available at no additional charge. Shame on them.

From a Travel Agent :  We were ASTA members for several years but finally realized they had no intention of helping the agency community. Take a look at their track record - the debacle of the agent vs. airlines lawsuit, the continued commission cuts, the testimonies in congress.....the list goes on and on and on.

Our single greatest reason for getting out of ASTA? Ask the board of directors where they hold their many, many meetings. Do they convene at ASTA headquarters in lowly Virginia? Oh no, try Jamaica, France, Switzerland - ALL AT ASTA MEMBER EXPENSE! We decided that if trips to exotic locales would be funded from our pockets, it should be our own trips! Sorry, ASTA, you could never prove to us that you were using membership fees for anything that would benefit our agency.

From a Travel Agent :  ASTA vs ARTA? I was an ASTA member for years.  Didn't pay ASTA dues or dues to my consortium last winter.  Neither was doing a thing for my survival as a full-service agent, but both wanted my money.  Joined a new consortium. and ARTA, who, as you mentioned, does do things for its members.  It also has Al Anolik as attorney-advisor, which is worth its weight in gold.