New ASTA CEO Brings Fresh Perspective to Industry

Professional travel agents have a new, articulate and knowledgeable advocate in the form of Tony Gonchar, newly named CEO of ASTA. With 25 years off experience behind him – including stints with Virtuoso, Expedia and Microsoft – Gonchar will bring into play a fresh perspective to ASTA.

Gonchar will join ASTA January 3, and in an interview with Travel Agent demonstrated a keen awareness of the challenges faced by the 75-year-old society and its member agents. As well, he sees real opportunities ahead for ASTA and professional agents as the industry rebounds from the recession.

“ The boomer generation is changing the industry and travel distribution and ASTA will have to adapt to new realities,” Gonchar said. “ASTA is indispensible to professional agents and can contribute mightily to our members ability to serve the traveling public and the new boomer market. But boomer expectations of their travel agent advisors have changed the equation.”

Getting ASTA on a firm financial footing will be a top priority and Gonchar sees opportunities in generating new revenues for ASTA. Already running lean and mean, Gonchar sees the most growth on the revenue rather than the cost cutting side including endorsements. “We will have to communicate ASTA’s value to a wider audience.”

“Attracting and retaining new members will be critical as will communicating ASTA’s achievements and value. But we may also capitalize on ASTA’s international position. I’m bullish on building relationships with international groups such as the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and our International chapters in over 120 countries.”

Legislative relations are another top priority. “ASTA has done outstanding work on the legislative relations front – both on the federal level and on the state and local level. I would like to see ASTA get more credit for this and see greater recognition of the importance of legislative relations among agents. ”

The new 112th Congress, the policies of regulatory agencies such as the TSA and the DOT and the continuing challenge of combatting local and state taxation will be important to ASTA and its members. “We also want to work constructively with other travel and consumer groups that we share interests with.”

“ASTA’s success in opposing United’s credit card initiative is noteworthy. ASTA’s legislative relations staff does great work with limited resources. (In June, United moved to restrict the access of some travel agencies to the United merchant account for sale of United tickets on a credit card and has since pulled back from the move.) The travel industry is important economically. We are thankful that United has decided to rescind this policy.”

Another key goal for Gonchar will be to listen and learn from ASTA members and its leadership and tap into the experience and expertise of staff and ASTA chapters. “I’m patient and eager to get other perspectives. I want to learn. The first challenge will be to build consensus as to what ASTA is and should be and can be. I welcome input.”

Since From 2007-2009 Gonchar has served as executive vice president of Virtuoso, the luxury travel consortium, responsible for the company’s member and supplier relationships, as well as all marketing programs and strategy. It is no surprise that he applauds ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Council (CAC), which includes most of the major agency networks, consortia and franchise groups. “ The CAC has been invaluable to ASTA and I have no doubt this will continue.”

Gonchar also wants to reach out to other associations in the industry and develop a consensus on shared goals and opportunities. “The outlook for 2011 suggests that the economic turnaround is continuing which is good news for professional agents and the industry. But 2011 will be contentious year as a new Congress takes hold. There are scores of issues to monitor – including changes in laws governing independent contractors and airline display of ancillary fees.”

A veteran of Microsoft and Expedia – both world-class innovators – Gonchar sees opportunities for leveraging and enhancing ASTA’s perceived value to both consumers and professional travel agents. “There will be opportunities to innovate new programs – especially new tools that add value to our membership – but all innovation will be based on consensus and value. New technologies present opportunities and ASTA will embrace these as appropriate.”

“Communicating the genuine value of ASTA membership to members and to the traveling public will be an imperative. ASTA is a respected brand whose value should be leveraged – especially to consumers.”

He also wants to explore new service opportunities that increase ASTA’s relevance. “ Can we create a strong brand for the ASTA member agent and stronger consumer awareness of the value of professional agents? How does ASTA contribute to members profitability?”

As ASTA’s CEO, Gonchar will report to Chris Russo, the ASTA president and chairman of the board of directors and supervise ASTA’s Alexandria, VA headquarters staff. Gonchar replaces Bill Maloney who resigned earlier this year.

Russo cited Gonchar's extensive background in many different facets of the industry noting: “I have said we need a strong ASTA for the future, and we believe Tony gives us the ability to change with the industry to be strong now and in the future.”

Prior to Virtuoso, Gonchar spent seven years at Expedia running its private label and branded partnerships division. His responsibilities included the identification, negotiation and execution of partnerships, acquisitions and integrations with smaller technology startups, as well as major multinational corporations. Additionally, he oversaw product planning, business development, account management, partner marketing, operations and public relations.

Most recently, Gonchar served as a consultant for Microsoft, responsible for building a customer relations management (CRM) strategy for the online Microsoft Store division. Prior to working in the travel industry, Gonchar was a database-marketing partner for Bozell and a manager of direct marketing for Bank of America. Gonchar received his B.A. in economics from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

One interesting insight into Gonchar's thinking is a paper he wrote “A Perspective On Global Wealth and Your Business.” The paper offers a thorough analysis of the current affluent travel market and the opportunities ahead for the travel industry and professional agents.

“Today, Boomers drive luxury spending based on sheer population size and available discretionary income. Boomers control 80 percent of personal financial assets and 50 percent of discretionary spending power. They spend $500 million on vacations per year and represent 80 percent of all leisure travel.”

Gonchar also raised the question of how well prepared professional advisors including professional agents and travel companies are in meeting new demands for high integrity, personalized services.

“As a new and younger generation begin to make up a larger percentage of the high net worth individuals (HNWI) population, how prepared are we to meet the demands of these younger, more vocal wealthy consumers?”

While there may not be an easy answer, Gonchar’s question - and his analysis - suggests that Gonchar will take a realistic, fact based, global approach to the travel industry and ASTA’s future as he seeks to build the ASTA brand and ASTA’s value to its members and to the traveling public.