Submit Press release  eTN Team ·  Advertising  ·  eTN Awards  - Worldtourism Events    

American Society of Travel Agents

ASTA has a new face (and voice)

Nelson Alcantara, eTN editor-in-chief  Feb 25, 2011

Tell us your background and how you got involved with the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA)?
Tony Gonchar: I have a long history with travel and have always loved the industry. I had worked closely with ASTA while at Virtuoso and when the news came that they were searching for a new CEO, I jumped on it.

Taking on ASTA, especially during this economically challenging time, is quite an undertaking, what motivated you to take on the job?
Gonchar: I like a challenge and I’ve always been attracted to roles that provide interesting and difficult problems to solve. This is a challenging position filled with enormous potential and opportunity. ASTA has been a key player in the travel industry space for 75 years.

What is your vision for ASTA under your stewardship? How do you plan to bring this to fruition?
Gonchar: It really comes down to relevancy and measurable value. Companies have a tendency to devote limited resources first against those products and services that deliver the highest degree of relevant value for them and their customers/members. If ASTA is providing consistent and measurable value to its membership, the organization will thrive. ASTA will continue to be the only organization in the industry that provides travel agents with the essential resources they need to maintain profitable businesses. As far as my agenda, I can tell you that after only one week in the job, I will continue what I’ve already started - the process of evaluation and consultation. I am coming into this role with an open mind, a welcoming spirit for input from others and a determination to understand first, then build consensus and consent, then make changes that will improve the business of the Society and thereby enhance the benefits for the members.

My key areas of focus will be finances, legislative agenda and awareness. There are indeed financial challenges. Overcoming them is one reason I was attracted to the job opportunity. ASTA’s core business and core values delivered to the travel agency industry are very solid and vital to the welfare of the industry. I bring to the table an understanding of the processes that must be gone through to turn the financial situation around to sustained profitability. I will be working closely with the staff, board and other volunteers to accomplish these changes as quickly as possible.

Based on a preliminary examination of the financial statements, the organization is running pretty lean right now and while there may be cost containment and optimization opportunities on the expense side, revenue is the primary short term issue so we will be looking at the increasing participation at two major educational and networking events, the Travel Retail & Destination Expo (Las Vegas 9/11 – 9/13) and the International Destination Expo (San Juan 4/14 – 4/17).

We will continue to drive membership campaigns to increase new members, retain existing ones and reactivate those who have left ASTA. There are a number of sponsorship opportunities that we will also explore. In addition, there are some creative revenue sources that will be developed. I’ve got some ideas here but am not prepared to discuss those right now. Of course, all of the above is subject to reconsideration later.

The legislative agenda is complex and includes issues that are highly visible and important to the public, like Airport Security and issues that are less visible to the public but highly important to the travel industry like direct connect/unbundling/ancillary services, airlines shifting merchant fees to agencies, and taxation of independent contractors.

ASTA is fortunate to have an extremely strong team led by Paul Ruden. ASTA’s efforts on behalf of travel agents at the state and federal level should not be overlooked. Thanks to the Society’s ongoing efforts, travel agents have been spared thousands of dollars in unnecessary taxes and regulations that would have created an uneven playing field and impaired their ability to do business.

The industry knows ASTA, but consumer awareness about the value of using an agency and, more importantly, an ASTA agency needs to be improved. One of our goals should be ensuring that ASTA remains the trusted advisor to the travel agency community and that ASTA agencies become the trusted travel advisors for consumers.

There have been some changes in ASTA leadership since Kathy Sudeikis left, do you know if this was this intentional?
Gonchar: I can’t speak to how the organization has been run in the past or to decisions that were made prior to my arrival. This is a period of tremendous change within the travel industry and the overall organization leadership community. We have seen 26 national organizations with new leadership in the past 30 days, of which there have several just within the travel industry. I am excited to meet with and en gage with these new talented leaders.

Speaking about Kathy (Sudeikis), I interviewed her in 2009 and back then she made the argument that tourism cannot end under any circumstance, do you subscribe to this idea?
Gonchar: Yes. According to WTTC, travel and tourism globally employs over 235 million people - 8.2% of all employment - and generates 9.2% of world GDP. It is one of the most vital and vibrant aspects of the global economy.

What is your position on travel to conflict-ridden destinations?
Gonchar: Americans should be free to travel wherever they wish to go. US citizens need to be informed of the risk and make decisions based on this knowledge and their comfort levels. A good ASTA travel agent will be able to help consumers make informed choices on where to maximize their vacation experience because experience expectations are different for each individual.

Many European carriers have either added or resumed service to Iraq, how does ASTA feel about this development?
Gonchar: It is always exciting to see the return and revitalization of tourism anywhere in the world.

Would ASTA promote travel to Iraq?
Gonchar: Under the right circumstances, yes.

What issues are American travel agents most concerned about these days?
Gonchar: This is one of the first questions I will be asking our members and hope they make their concerns known to me directly. I think issues will depend on the type of agency and their mix corporate and leisure but in general it would be reduced profitability based on commission reduction, coupled with more informed travelers accessing completely transparent pricing and content. On a pure transaction basis, agents are working harder and making less.

I’ve just learned that ASTA is partnering with the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) for an initiative called The Open Allies for Airfare Transparency (Open Allies), can you talk about this initiative, what it’s objectives and how the alliance with BTC came about?
Gonchar: The OAAT new alliance will make it easier for GDSs, TMCs, corporate travel departments and consumer groups to voice their concerns about information transparency and sharing across all distribution channels and will be an advocate on behalf of recent proposals from the US Department of Transportation and Congress. Details of the new alliance including logistics, members, launch timing, and strategy will be announced shortly.

How is ASTA’s relationship with the airlines, especially US carriers?
Gonchar: Welcoming for open and honest dialogue on how the agent community and the airlines can work together to provide value to each other and the traveling consumer. As a longtime advocate on behalf of the traveling public, ASTA strongly opposes any situation where consumers are not able to fully compare prices and schedules and accordingly make informed purchasing decisions, regardless of the channel they use to purchase travel. ASTA is an advocate for ensuring that consumers and the travel agents that serve them have full and timely access to comparative fare and schedule information so they can make informed purchasing decisions. We support innovation that produces true market efficiencies.

I’ve spoken to travel agents and some are very angry about the zero commission policy, what’s your take on the issue?
Gonchar: I think it is very difficult in any industry when long-standing compensation structures are impacted. Suppliers will continue to create shareholder and investor value by creating margin efficiencies by reducing costs and ASTA will continue to work with the agent community to help them build their existing business and derive alternative revenue streams to run successful, profitable travel companies.

It seems to me that airlines have found a way to shift the paradigm and instead of travel agents making money off the airlines, it is now the airlines making money off of travel agents. For example, US airlines are making money by issuing debit memos when flight schedule changes are not acknowledged. What is your message to frustrated travel agents about this trend? What is your message to the airlines?
Gonchar: As I have mentioned, both the airlines and travel agents are scrambling to find new sources of revenue and efficiencies and to keep up with ever0changing technology and consumer preferences for how they purchase travel. While we cannot stop the airlines from seeking new revenue sources wherever they can find it, it is ASTA’s job to make sure we provide our members with the proper training and resources so that they also can find new revenue sources and provide even more value to their clients.

What’s your take on the global economic meltdown?
Gonchar: I think we are on our way to a global recovery and definitely feel confident that travel and other experiential purchases are poised to lead this recovery. See attached paper I wrote and specifically the sections related to demographic changes. This is an incredible time for travel agents to maximize their role as trusted advisors for their customers.

What’s your position on climate change? Do you think the travel and tourism industry can make a difference?
Gonchar: It matters and it is significant. I think it is just good business to be eco-friendly but I’d expect consumers are going to expect it without paying any more. A recovery in incremental eco-pricing will lag a general recovery. ASTA recently announced an update to its Green Guides for both travel agents and suppliers. The changes to the guides reflect ongoing changes in the eco-friendly travel business, according to the organization. The new editions of the Green Guide for Travel Agents and the Green Guide for Suppliers feature enhanced sections on marketing green travel, including an update on FCC regulations regarding environmental products. The sections on travel segments (air, ground transportation, hotel, cruise and tour) have been updated to reflect recent changes and new green initiatives in each area.

The debate on Puerto Rico Tourism has caused a bit of controversy and is currently firing up eTN’s discussion boards. What is your take on Puerto Rico Tourism and why have you chosen PR to host your expo in April?
Gonchar: We are very much looking forward to hosting our event there and working with PRTC to showcase Puerto Rico and all it has to offer. Despite the recent article, Puerto Rico remains a favorite among travelers, especially those who might wish to remain close to home but are looking for an international flavor. I think Puerto Rico continues to appeal to travelers--U.S. consumers looking for a Caribbean getaway as well as those from farther afield. When the Board selected Puerto Rico as the next IDE host site, they were impressed by its tourism infrastructure and the fact that it’s the cruise gateway for the Caribbean--and the opportunities that would afford. Additionally, its proximity to the mainland and other Caribbean islands were both draws. Another great selling factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is that when the IDE began we wanted to make sure that we varied the section of the world in which they were held from year to year. We have already been to Asia, Europe and Africa and the Caribbean was a natural progression. And now with Peru hosting the IDE in 2012, we will be adding South America to the roster.

You have 25 years of experience in travel and tourism, what have you learned?
Gonchar: Change is inevitable. It can be scary, frustrating and, if ignored, disastrous. Embrace change and see it as an opportunity to re-invent yourself, your staff and your company. People should always be curious about what the next great opportunity is for them.

If there is one thing you’ve learned about the industry, what would it be?
Gonchar: Travel is the only thing you can spend your money on that truly makes you richer. We are all incredibly lucky to be working in an industry where we can create this kind of value for people.

Is there anything else you wish to share with our readers?
Gonchar: I have a great deal of enthusiasm for ASTA and its potential and am committed to serving and representing the membership’s interests. I think the future is a bright one for our industry and that travel agents will only continue to see public recognition of the value they offer. I’m extremely excited to have joined ASTA and primed and ready to take on the challenges and opportunities this year will bring.

ASTA has a new face (and voice)
Tony Gonchar

Premium Partners