ASTA’s search for a new CEO to replace Bill Maloney, who held the post until his recent resignation, offers ASTA a unique opportunity to reach out to travel agents, increase transparency in its deliberations and enhance its industry clout, says Alan Fiermonte, an independent travel agent and long standing commentator on ASTA.
“The search for a new CEO should provide an opportunity for ASTA to emerge from the selection process stronger and with new vitality,” Fiermonte, owner of down2earth Adventures, Conshohocken, PA, said in an interview with Travel Agent. “The industry needs a stronger association and ASTA’s leadership should encourage a robust dialogue on ASTA’s future – and the future of travel agents. ASTA’s CEO does not determine policy which is and should be set by the elected Board of Directors. But the CEO has a lot to say about how policy is implemented including allocation of financial resources, staff and setting priorities, especially amongst various membership categories and even chapter organizations. The search for a new CEO should be a search for new opportunities and innovations for all member categories, but especially small and independent businesses.”
Fiermonte ran for election to ASTA’s Board twice – once in 2008 and again in 2009. In 2009, he withdrew and resigned his ASTA membership after a complicated dispute about election procedures and policies put him at risk of being expelled from the association.
“I am not nostalgic about ASTA’s past," Fiermonte said. "I want a professional trade association that is well financed, better managed and capable of leading a fragmented, multi-level industry. We need a dynamic and agile ASTA.”Fiermonte describes himself as an independent agent specializing in adventure and exotic travel. He is a member of the International Ecotourism Society, Sustainable Travel International, and the Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN).
“Like any small business we can use the help of a strong professional agency and intermediary association," Fiermonte said. "So I do want ASTA to succeed. A primary need is for greater financial and decision-making transparency. ASTA must draw on the formidable talents and leadership gifts of its membership regardless of size. ASTA must do more to serve independent home based and small business agencies in addition to advocating for the large online agencies.” Fiermonte says supplier support is also essential as is a strong international membership.
The starting point, according to Fiermonte, is ASTA’s finances. Based on his analysis of ASTA’s publicly available IRS-990 tax returns, Fiermonte calculates ASTA‘s aggregate operating deficit has risen to almost $6 million with not one profitable year of business operations since 2002 . “Six Boards of Directors have overseen this situation and something needs to change,” he said.
He calls for more accountability through quarterly and annual financial reporting to all shareholder members including a detailed presentation and dialogue at the annual membership meeting in the fall at THETRADESHOW. “ASTA can’t operate on a deficit. Setting priorities and getting the association’s finances in order is a huge first step on the road great association health,” Fiermonte said.
Another recommendation is aggressive recruiting of new members so that ASTA represents a majority of travel agents. “The key is to deliver a powerful value proposition for members," Fiermonte said. "ASTA has to wow agents. One idea is to rebuild stronger ASTA chapters to recruit, engage and retain new members on a local level. Another is to adjust dues based on size or revenue of the member agency. In my opinion, ASTA is outspending its resource base and burning up its savings. This adds up to a drag on innovation and member support. Business as usual isn’t an option especially in view of the challenges travel agents will face in the years ahead.
“As part of its transparency of operations ASTA should reveal its real membership numbers, including trends and breakdowns. ASTA’s annual reports are short on facts," Fiermonte contined. "Members should know where the association stands – with finances, with membership, and with plans and policy. ASTA must live up to its own mission statement – to facilitate the business of selling travel through effective representation, shared knowledge and the enhancement of professionalism. Industry suppliers are making huge investments in travel agent viability and their ability to serve the traveling public professionally. They deserve the support of a dynamic, forward looking association that serves and supports agents in a multitude of high impact, integrative ways.
“Many things can be done if the Board has the will," Fiermonte said. "For example, open the books and start a substantive dialogue with members on finances and programs. Start a pay- a- fair –share dues policy. Aggressively promote membership. Recruit, retain and involve members. Develop stronger chapters. Invest in technology and social media that works. Tap into the ideas and insights of member agents.”
Fiermonte is far from negative on ASTA’s future. He gives ASTA’s government and legislative relations programs high marks for its ability to represent ASTA in Washington, D.C. “The real question is if ASTA has the funds needed to do the job that needs to be done – on the federal and state levels," he said. "The issues impacting travel agents of all sizes will challenge ASTA and the resources must be there.”
Another positive is ASTA’s research program that offers agency owners and managers of all sizes and specializations real value. “My question is if there should not be more of it offered at a lower cost so that every agent and agency can benefit," Fiermonte said. "Are Core members at a disadvantage compared to Premium members given the cost of research reports? Agency owners of all sizes need information to base their decision making.”
A third positive is ASTA’s Corporate Affairs Council, or CAC, that represents the major travel agency consortia and franchise groups who have a defined representative seated on ASTA’s Board. “These CAC members represent highly capitalized groups and are run by very talented industry leaders who are alert to the challenges that the industry faces," Fiermonte said. "But a Small or Independent Agency Council with a seated representative on the Board could contribute talent and ideas similarly. Why is NACTA operating as a separate association within an association? How do we mobilize and integrate the independent, niche or specialist agency?”
While ASTA gets value for its public relations investment, Fiermonte believes that its outreach to consumers to show the value of travel agent services is misguided. “Showing consumers the value of a travel agent is a primary task for ASTA and for more than a few suppliers who benefit from travel agents support," he said. "A better-designed guerilla-marketing program is needed. ASTA’s consumer website should be a primary tool and represent top of the line technology and content. And is bigger and better use of social media and viral marketing possible?”
Fiermonte makes no apology for his criticism of ASTA’s financial situation and leadership challenges and urges other travel agents to get involved. “Too many agents have given up on ASTA," he said. "They shouldn’t. I would like to rejoin if ASTA will have me. ASTA’s best years are ahead – at least if the talented and knowledgeable agents get involved. Lets open up the door and listen and learn. Appointing a new CEO is a tremendous opportunity to renew ASTA and strengthen an industry that has defied disintermediation. Lets make ASTA an organization that wows members and the industry.”
Travel Agent welcomes comments from ASTA members and non members alike on the future of ASTA.