|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
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!
[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
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?
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
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
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
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.