Travel agents gathering in Hawai'i
By Kelly Yamanouchi
Advertiser Staff Writer
Travel agents streamed into Hawai'i during the weekend for the start of the American Society of Travel Agents World Travel Congress this week, with more than 3,000 signed up by yesterday as the convention started.
Many yesterday said they came to see Hawai'i, but they are also looking for strategies to keep business profitable as travel agencies across the country face problems with competition from the Internet and dropped commissions from airlines.
This year's convention is more focused on education and business training than in past years because travel agents are facing so many problems, organizers said.
"I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and I can tell you it's not another train," said ASTA president and chief executive Richard Copland, adding that travel agents' goals could benefit places like Hawai'i. "There are hundreds of cities and towns that depend on tourism ... ASTA's goal is to spur travel, to get people flying again."
David Preece, the Hawai'i Visitors & Convention Bureau's vice president for North America, said he was concerned about convention attendance estimates for closer to 2,500, but was pleased with the higher numbers yesterday. More also may register during the week.
The visitors bureau dedicates about 20 percent of its budget for marketing to the travel trade, with about two-thirds of its budget for marketing directly to consumers, Preece said.
Hawai'i visitor industry representatives are working to see that travel agents are pleased with their trip to the Islands.
"We are confident that as you send your guests here that they will be satisfied," Hawai' Visitors & Convention Bureau president and chief executive Tony Vericella told travel agents.
Madelyn Zone, owner of travel agency Zone Travel Inc. in Cleveland, said she came to the congress "because of the changes that are happening in the travel business this year."
"Starting Jan. 1, it seemed everything was back to normal. Business was increasing," Zone said.
Then, some major airlines dropped commissions. Zone began charging higher professional fees to make up for it and found it harder to keep business with corporate customers.
Zone said her business used to be 75 percent corporate customers and 25 percent leisure travelers, but now it's close to 40 percent corporate and 60 percent leisure.
"That's the way you're going to survive in the travel agency business, is to book more leisure," Zone said. "When it's just a flight to wherever they don't feel they need that travel agent. But when they're going to spend a lot of money you want to make sure you're talking to someone who knows about it."
She said she has been having trouble keeping and motivating her travel agents, and planned to attend seminars on how to do that. "It's not as fun as it used to be," Zone said. "Travel agents need to keep their head up high. Things are going to get better."
Zone is scheduled to make her first visit to the Big Island Thursday on one of the Neighbor Island trips that are part of the convention, and she hopes that her hands-on views will make it easier for her to sell Big Island trips.
Yesterday was also the first training session for travel agents to become certified Hawai'i specialists. Those specialists receive leads in the "hundreds of thousands" from the visitors bureau each year, Preece said.
"We believe nothing can ever replace the touch of the travel agents," said Hawaii Tourism Authority executive director Rex Johnson. "That's why it is so important that ASTA has chosen to hold this Congress in Hawai'i."
Many seminars focused on technology for travel agencies, such as one on how to sell travel package deals on eBay that attracted more than 100 attendees. EBay touted the online auction site as a good place for travel agents to sell last minute inventory.
Vivian Russell, who runs a travel agency, attended the seminar and said she planned to start selling Hawai'i packages on eBay. About 20 percent of her business is selling travel to Hawai'i, she said.
"I'm excited about being able to sell to a much wider client base," she said.
ASTA also announced yesterday a new program to help travel agents create business plans and run their businesses more efficiently, a technology council to provide technology resources to travel agents and new Web site services.
American Booksellers Association chief operating officer Oren Teicher, a speaker at the convention yesterday, said the independent booksellers that he represents have struggled against many of the same competitive issues from the Internet and direct sales from suppliers that travel agents have.
"There's lots of things that we're doing in the retail book business that's applicable to your industry," Teicher told the travel agents. There are fewer bookstores than there were 10 years ago.
Teicher said initiatives such as a nationwide marketing program for independent bookstores, including a newsletter with staff recommendations from across the country and a Web site service, have helped small bookstore owners to stay afloat in the face of competition from Barnes & Noble and Borders.
Reach Kelly Yamanouchi at 535-2470, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.