James Shillinglaw | September 09, 2015 12:00 PM ET
Paul Ruden: ASTA's Heart, Soul and Brains
Last week the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) staged its annual Advocacy Dinner, an elaborate affair where the travel agent association celebrates those who have actively lobbied for travel agent legislative and regulatory causes or raised significant money for ASTAPAC, the group’s political action committee.
This year, however, there was another reason to attend the dinner, because it celebrated the career and accomplishments of one of ASTA’s finest—Paul Ruden, executive vice president-legal and industry affairs. Paul is retiring at the end of this month after 25 years heading up ASTA’s legal, government and industry affairs. Before that, he also served for 11 years as ASTA’s outside counsel when he was a managing partner at Wilner & Scheiner.
Each year at the advocacy dinner, Paul serves as the MC, using his dry wit and sage observations to showcase the winners of the annual awards for advocacy, as well as what ASTA has accomplished on the lobbying front over the previous year. Indeed, Paul effectively “holds court” allowing those attending the dinner to better understand just how crucial ASTA’s role is in government and industry affairs, benefiting travel agents and the public at large.
But this year the advocacy dinner turned into a virtual “roast” of Paul himself, as speakers both lauded his achievements and, in a video, made fun of his reputation as a “take no prisoners” advocate for ASTA.
Mike Premo, president of Airlines Report Corp., which Paul and ASTA had taken on in one infamous incident in the past, joked that they had often referred to Paul by his last name without the “n”! Even the famed Bob Woodward, the journalist who just happens to Ruden’s friend, chimed in on the video with a few humorous observations about Paul and his career.
PHOTO: Paul Ruden was celebrated for his 25 years of service to travel agents during the closing general session of the ASTA Global Conference. (Photo by James Shillinglaw)
I first met Paul 24 years ago at the ASTA World Travel Congress in Taipei. It was my first of many such ASTA events, so I was a bit green around the gills in terms of covering travel agents and the travel industry. And I remember being a bit intimidated by Paul’s rather stern demeanor, but at least he was patient with a young reporter who really didn’t get understand the issues facing the industry.
Over the years, I ended up interviewing Paul a number of times, on everything from the commission cuts and caps to, more recently, the proposed New Distribution Capability. And I was there last week asking Paul about the U.S. Labor Department’s newfound activism on classifying workers as full-time versus independent contractors, an issue that he is still quite focused on.
For many, Paul seemed over-qualified for the key job he ended up with at ASTA. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, he could have been a wealthy partner in any top law firm in Washington. Indeed, he began his career as a trial attorney for the Civil Aeronautics Board before going into private practices. He began working with ASTA in 1979, when the group hired him to represent it during the final deregulation case directed at the travel agency-airline relationship,
In the early 1990s, when I began covering ASTA, Paul was in the thick of almost every issue involving agents, airlines, travel distribution, and government. Indeed, during the commission cuts and caps, he was one of the major voices of reason working to make sure ASTA did not run afoul of government antitrust regulations when many agents wanted an organized boycott of the major U.S. carriers.
Paul also was in the thick of the fights involving the rise of the Internet and online travel agencies, GDS deregulation, Department of Transportation airline consumer protection rules and numerous other legislative battles at the federal, state and local levels. Notably Paul was the point man during ASTA’s successful appeal of ARC’s plan to increase the annual fee it charged travel agencies by as much as 500 percent over three years.
And some people forget that Paul at was a serious candidate to become president of ASTA, a move I thought was certain several times. He would have made a great leader and a crusader for travel agent causes as president, but he certainly did that anyway in his post overseeing legal and industry affairs.
ASTA President and CEO Zane Kerby has called Paul “irreplaceable,” though ASTA has great new legal and industry affairs team led by Eben Peck, senior vice president of government and industry affairs; Mark Meader, vice president of industry affairs; as well as a newly named general counsel. And fortunately, Paul will still be around as a consultant, lending that sage advice that has proven to be so essential for ASTA and the travel agency profession.
On the night of the Advocacy Dinner, after all the speeches and ceremony, I suddenly found myself on a bus sitting next to Paul as we headed back to the ASTA Global Conference host hotel.
We didn’t talk about travel agent issues that night (I saved that for the press conference the next day). Instead, we reminisced about ASTA World Congresses in years past, especially during the 1990s, when both he and I were fairly new to those events.
We remembered the parties that the ASTA staff used to have—most notably after the Congresses in Taipei and Cairo where I tagged along. But mostly we talked about how lucky we are to be in the travel industry, where we get to have such amazing experiences around the world.
Thanks, Paul, for all that you’ve done for ASTA and the travel agency profession. And thanks for being so patient back in 1991 with a young reporter and editor who didn’t quite know what questions to ask. I hope my questions got a bit better in the years that followed.
Paul, I’ll miss your insight and your expertise, but I also know I can still call on you when I want to know the real story behind any key issue affecting the travel agency trade.
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