The Last Word on ASTA's Expo
By James Shillinglaw
September 17, 2012 11:45 PM
A week ago I wrote a TravelPulse.com news story about ASTA's Travel Retailing & Destination Expo in Los Angeles. I had a number of emails and comments about that story, most of which remarked on how different my story was from what appeared in other publications and trade websites. They asked me which version was true. Well, the short answer was I did the reporting and my story was correct.
I simply didn't buy ASTA's claim that an estimated 1,300 agents, exhibitors and media were at the conference (I'm still waiting for the official numbers). Nor did I agree with those stories that stated attendance was "better than expected." It wasn't. Indeed, a year ago LA Tourism said it expected 3,000 attendees, and as I reported, its officials were very disappointed with the result. I should know: I was there a year ago in Las Vegas when ASTA and LA Tourism confirmed they expected 3,000. I'll admit that at the time I had my doubts, but that's the figure they were predicting.
Anyone who attended this year's ASTA expo tradeshow or went to the seminars could clearly see that attendance was well under 1,000. Indeed, some put it at between 600 and 800 total, about half of whom were travel agents. The expected drive-in attendance on Saturday, the second day of the expo, never materialized (just ask the exhibitors on the floor). I spoke to roughly 20 exhibitors, all of whom said they wouldn't return next year or would have to reexamine their participation in future ASTA shows.
Don't get me wrong. I think there were some very good things that came out of the ASTA expo. First, there was a very good ASTA Advocacy Dinner on Saturday night, with 250 in attendance to celebrate ASTA's achievements on the legislative and regulatory front. There were also good meetings of ASTA Premium members and the Corporate Advisory Council (CAC). Some of the seminars also were quite well attended, though never by more than a couple hundred delegates. On what passed for the opening general session, roughly 400 delegates (agents, exhibitors and media) were in the audience. I had roughly 200 delegates in my Saturday morning session.
Again, don't get me wrong. I don't write this to slam ASTA. They have been trying as hard as they can to make the expo a success. But the way it's formatted, the show just won't work anymore. Changes have to be made to make the expo something that every travel agent, every top supplier and every travel journalist (consumer and trade) feels compelled to attend. That means great speakers and educational sessions with drawing power, sessions with top industry executives and travel agents, and great evening events with networking opportunities. And might I also suggest a return to such traditions as annual awards for travel agents and suppliers. Somehow ASTA lost track of those awards this year, which are an essential part of any trade organization.
Earlier this summer I attended the Global Business Travel Association's annual conference and trade show. It featured speakers that included two ex-presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers. The general session and dining functions were packed and the tradeshow floor was full of exhibitors and corporate travel professionals. Now GBTA is not ASTA, and many have pointed out that to exhibitors at that show (many airlines included) can sign some pretty big contracts at the show. But ASTA's top agents, especially its Premium members, have some significant pull in the market as well.
Can the ASTA expo be successful? I think it can, although again major changes need to be made. Fortunately, it seems ASTA's new board of directors has recognized that it needs to address the situation. I've heard that it rejected the venue and plan for the show next year (I had heard Miami or Chicago, but never got that confirmed). The board also has formed a committee to study the situation, which is clearly something that must be done before the next expo, if there is one next year.
Indeed, it might even be a good idea to give the ASTA expo a year off to really figure out a solution for the future. ASTA apparently still needs the expo to generate revenue, so some substitute needs to be found. I met a number of suppliers who said they were willing to back ASTA in other ways beyond just exhibiting at a trade show.
One solution that I would propose is to ditch the whole idea of a tradeshow entirely and instead focus on having a "think tank" national forum of top travel agents and industry leaders to discuss issues and the future for travel. This is what The Travel Institute did so effectively back when it was known as the Institute for Certified Travel Agents. That event just happened to be one of the best conferences in the industry – ask anyone who attended.
Clearly, there needs to be an ASTA, and those that suggest otherwise ignore the good work that the association does on the legislative and regulatory front. Just check out today’s news about California’s new legislation on selling travel insurance. ASTA also continues to be an effective grassroots-based organization that truly represents travel agents, from the smallest home-based or solo practitioner to the largest mega-million-dollar agency.
Much will depend on whom ASTA selects as its permanent CEO. That selection process is now under way, but sadly will not be completed until the end of the year, with a new executive expected to be in place by January. That new leader must effectively plan the future for any ASTA show, regardless of its format. He or she also must serve as the spokesperson for travel agents and the focal point of the association. But more on that in a future column.
Meantime, this is the last time (I hope) to be writing about attendance at the ASTA expo, which sadly has become one of the main stories to come out of that Los Angeles show. In an upcoming column I'll focus on what I believe is a much more important story for travel agents -- and one that also came out of the expo. It just happens to once again involved the relationship between agents, airlines and the GDSs.
James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director for travAlliancemedia, parent of TravelPulse.com, Agent@Home magazine and Vacation Agent magazine.