(Questions for William A. Maloney, chief executive officer of the American Society of Travel Agents)
eTN: Delta Air Lines and the booking issues – can you elaborate more about ASTA’s efforts on this front?
William Maloney: Yes. We wrote to Delta, because we were having a rash of complaints from across the nation – large agents and small – having been issued debit memos from Delta, and they were having trouble finding someone at Delta to answer their questions. When they reported what had happened to us, we realized that some of these might be situations that Delta had some cause in. We went to Delta’s president, and they answered and said, “We will only deal with individual agents.” But agents are finding it very hard when they get a memo that says please respond to debit memo at delta.com. There’s no human to reach out to; there’s no person or process to appeal these things.
eTN: This goes back to the article that I wrote about six months ago about debit memos being the new nemesis for travel agents. It’s gone on to the point that you can’t actually reach a person at Delta?
Maloney: No, they will only respond by email, and they will not sit down and review the process with us to see if they can form a committee with us to see if we can help with any of these things.
eTN: So what are you going to do then, now that they’re not willing to talk?
Maloney: Well, I think what we’re going to try and do is work with, again, as much empirical evidence as we can and maybe work with GDSs [Global Distribution Systems] to see if we can establish some kinds of procedures or education to minimize these things.
eTN: What’s the significance of resolving this issue?
Maloney: There are really two issues here. One is that, if agents are going to continue to be the distribution of a significant portion of the airline tickets; there are a lot of decent two-way communication and respect between the two, and that’s what we’re trying to establish – regain the old mutual dependence and mutual respect, and we think that that’s lacking now.
eTN: Let’s talk about your International Destination Expo or IDE? What is it about?
Maloney: IDE is about getting excellent education by immersion in the destination. What we realize is that agents, now more than ever, need to be able to add value to a client’s trip when the client is traveling in a certain part of the world. The agents need to not only understand the geography and the culture, but also the travel industry itself – what resources are there and what amenities are available. What we do is we take them to the country, and we have classroom education that is sponsored by the destination, we have certifications by the destination, and then we have immersion into the culture and business affairs of that destination or region. So the trade show will only be people from, if we’re going to Africa – Africa; when we were in Prague, it was from central Europe; when we were in Korea, it was from Asia. So they don’t see their friends from back home; they establish meaningful business relationships with a new segment of the trade in the destination. So it’s good for the destination; it’s great for our attendees.
eTN: How many travel agents have signed up so far?
Maloney: It varies. So far, we have over 750. We expect we’ll be close to 1,000 by the time we go another two weeks.
eTN: That’s an excellent number.
eTN: You’re holding the event in Sun City, close to Johannesburg. Why there? What does Sun City, South Africa have to offer?
Maloney: The choice of Sun City was really the choice of our host, which is South African Tourism, so you’d have to ask them why they went with Sun City.
eTN: From what you know of Sun City, what does it have to offer?
Maloney: Sun City is an excellent destination, because it has four wonderful world-class hotels, it has convention facilities, and it is a classic example of where tourism has been created out of nothing, much like Las Vegas or Dubai or some of these other man-made destinations, they are places that agents really have to see to believe.
eTN: Are you offering pre or post tours?
Maloney: Yes, we have almost 100 pre and post tours. What we have done is have pre- and post-provincial packages. These are literally two-night packages that our attendees can buy for about US$150 per person, and they can visit one of the provinces prior to the meeting and another destination post meeting. So we strongly are encouraging all of our delegates to see as much of south Africa and the surrounding countries as possible. If you go on our website [ http://asta.org/events/], you will see there’s about 12 or 15 different tours that are set up that people can take.
eTN: Where are your members inclined to want to visit at this point?
Maloney: They’re going to go all over. A lot of them are going to Cape Town, and a lot of them are going on the bush adventures – the various place where they can go and experience and see the animals. But some of them are going into Cape Town, others are going up to Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls, and even Botswana.
eTN: You bring up Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Do you have any apprehensions for going there, given the cholera issue and the political situation being so unstable?
Maloney: We have not organized any trips to Harare, but there are some trips that will go into Vic Falls, and they will probably get to see both the Zambia and the Zimbabwe sides of the falls.
eTN: Personally, do you have any apprehensions for going to Victoria Falls?
Maloney: No. Personally, I’m going myself, and I’m taking my daughter and son-in-law.
eTN: It’s a beautiful sight to see.
eTN: What about your members? Do they have any apprehensions about going to Zimbabwe?
Maloney: I haven’t polled them, and so I have no information on that.
eTN: When I spoke to Kathy – you read the interview – she was resolute in saying that tourism under no circumstance should ever end. With cholera now being added into the growing list of Zimbabwe’s challenges, do you still agree with Kathy on this?
Maloney: First of all, Kathy agrees with the ASTA philosophy that travel is a right of free people and that there is no way we should have political restrictions on the places we are free to go or not go. So that’s an ASTA philosophy and a belief. That given, there are some places that, from time to time, are unsafe because of civil dis-rest, because of disease, because of other things, and travel agents need to advise their travelers of what are the conditions in those places. I think every traveler must be aware of cholera, and cholera is not a laughing matter, it is a very serious thing, and I hope that they get it under control quickly.
eTN: In London last November, Chris Russo, your current president, laid out his vision for peace through tourism for the next 20 years. Do you agree with his vision?
Maloney: Yeah, he was talking about his children. Because he is in his early forties, and he has teenaged children, he is concerned about having a place where they can inherit his business and that travel will still be as enriching as it is for his generation and other generations. I really believe that. I think that’s a vision we all can and should support.
eTN: As you know, everyone is cutting back. We just heard that the Hawaii Tourism Authority just announced, because of budgetary concerns, they will not be attending this year’s ITB, which, as you know, is the world’s largest travel trade exhibition. What do you make of this decision and the whole economic situation in general?
Maloney: Companies have to do what they need to do to survive as businesses. You cannot be irresponsible and not take cognizance of today’s environment. However, entities need to plan for the future and have to have a belief that this economic set of circumstances is short lived, and hopefully it will be six months, maybe it will be 18 months, but whatever, it will be short lived, and tourism in places like Hawaii and market places like ITB will come back into equilibrium.
eTN: What does ASTA make of the ITB anyway?
Maloney: We’ve attended ITB for many, many years. We will not be there this year simply because it competes with our IBE, but we plan on being back there next year.
eTN: Some of the people that I have spoken to argue that now is the time to even get more aggressive with marketing their products. Do you agree?
Maloney: Yes. I just was in a conference in Jamaica last week, and the tourism minister of Jamaica has asked for extra funds from the government to spend during this time to make sure that Jamaica gets a proportionate share of the shrinking travel market, and I think that’s a good investment.
eTN; How do you convey this to your members who are, obviously, cutting back on their advertising?
Maloney: Yeah, but the beauty, Nelson, of now is that there are many electronic ways to communicate, and there are many inexpensive ways. When the phones are not ringing, what they should be doing is, we tell them they should be reaching out to their past passengers and past travelers and saying there are some excellent available offerings right now. Give me a call back, and let me tell you about the exciting things that I can produce for you now. Travel has always been an enriching experience. Now it’s more for affordable than ever. That’s what we are telling our people to tell them, and then people mostly get voice mail, and people will call back.
eTN: I agree. That message, it needs to be put out there, and Hawaii Tourism…
Maloney: They should be doing that. You don’t need to spend money on advertising to call out to people.
eTN: Has ASTA been impacted by the current global economic crunch, and what measures are you going to put in place or may have already put in place for your members to help them cope with the crisis?
Maloney: We have been having a series of outreaches to our members starting back in November. This has been our number one priority, and we have had a series of webinars every two weeks on how to reduce debit memos, on how to cope with the existing circumstances, how to increase your business, how to cut your expenses, what are some of the job-sharing alternatives. So we have been very, very aggressive with this for four months now.
eTN: How have your webinars been received by your members?
Maloney: They have been extremely successful. The lowest one we’ve had was with 400 people. We had a meeting with our premium members last week in San Francisco, two weeks ago in San Francisco, and we spent about 2 hours there on idea sharing. Maybe you know Wendy Goodenow from PNR Travel in Honolulu. She said it was one of the best sessions she’s ever been to, and she said she took 27 different ideas away from that one meeting, and she’s taking it back to her staff in Honolulu and saying, okay, which one of these should we adopt?
eTN: What are some of the projects, aside from the IDE, that you are working on?
Maloney: We are working on a whole series of educations for agents on how to position themselves in a world where they’re charging consumers fees. We did a lot of research with consumers last year, and we found out some very interesting things. For example, we found out that young people 18-35 who have used travel agents are just as likely, if not more likely, than people over 55. We found out that people under US$75,000 are willing to pay travel agents fees equal to, if not more willing, than people over $150,000 in income. So we are zeroing in on all of the data to develop new educational marketing programs for our members so that they can position themselves in the current modern world.
eTN: How many members do you have now at the moment?
Maloney: We have about 10,000 worldwide.
eTN: What is ASTA’s forecast for the US travel and tourism market for this year?
Maloney: We don’t really forecast markets. We’re not in a position to collectively analyze the sales data of all of our people, so there’s now way for us to really forecast.
eTN: Do you believe that we are facing, or about to face, a phenomenon that has been termed the Greater Depression?
Maloney: I’m not very good labels. I think that the new administration here in
Washington has created a tremendous optimism and a tremendous opportunity for the US to reposition itself both politically and financially, and I am very optimistic that we will do so.
eTN: Do you have anything else to add?
Maloney: I think that we remain optimistic. That, as we say at ASTA, without an ASTA travel agent, you’re on your own, and I think consumers more are coming back to travel agents because they now realize the value the travel agent adds before, during, and after a trip. So we remain very optimistic that travel agents will maintain an important place in travel distribution going forward.