ASTA's conference kicks off with humor, emotion and information

CHICAGO — In the words of keynoter Paul Allen, founder of, looking at the travel advisors and suppliers who had gathered for the ASTA Global Convention was “like witnessing a resurrection.”

If the week’s challenges — delta variant spikes, Hawaii’s discouragement of visitation and CDC guidance that older travelers should avoid cruising — was weighing on attendees, it was not evident in an opening general session that was rich with humor, emotion, inspiration and information.

Conference organizers did not require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test. That, too, did not seem to concern the just-under-1,000 masked attendees who sat in adjacent chairs in a ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Chicago. 

Delegates had been encouraged to affix a green sticker on their badge to indicate they were vaccinated and wear a wristband colored red (keep your distance) or green (elbow bumps welcome). In a lighthearted opening skit, a uniformed flight attendant violated the wristband rule and moved in too close to another flight attendant. A third ran up on stage, brandishing a role of duct tape to compel compliance.

What the ASTA conference speakers said

ASTA CEO Zane Kerby reviewed the association’s accomplishments during a period when travel was on pause, touting legislative successes; public relations and training efforts; and initiatives in sustainability and diversity and inclusion.

Speaker Gary Sadler, executive vice president for sales and industry relations at Unique Vacations, which markets Sandals and Beaches, commented on both the relationship between consumers and travel advisors and between travel advisors and suppliers when he said, “never before have trust and confidence been so intimately connected.”

That sentiment tied to keynoter Allen’s message that advisor-client trust can be leveraged for the benefit of both. Using, 23 and Me or other genealogy-focused websites, advisors can introduce the possibility of extending a leisure or business trip so that their client can meet recently discovered family connections.

He called it a process both “profound and personalized” and cited statistics from a survey that reported that 80% of travelers would extend a trip to add a family-related excursion and 66% would pay more to do so; and it would result in an average of 40% higher profit for the travel advisor planning the trip.

An emotional highlight of the morning

Delegates seemed happy and excited to be at a live event again, but the emotional highpoint of the morning was a personal tribute by Kerby to Bob Duglin, ASTA’s vice president of international membership and host agencies and managing director of the ASTA Small Business Network, who died last month.

Kerby announced that the annual award given to recognize the chapter whose activities were deemed most impressive would be renamed the Robert Duglin Chapter Excellence Award in his honor. He followed that up by announcing that ASTA’s Delaware Valley Chapter would be the first winner of the renamed award.

Duglin had been very fond of traveling to Hungary, and both Zsuzsanna Sarmon, regional head of business development for Visit Hungary, and Kristin Karst, co-owner and co-founder of AmaWaterways, discussed his Hungary connection onstage.

By the end of the session, the blend of looking backwards and forwards in time seemed to reflect the summation of Sadler’s speech. The world, he said, watched the travel industry in descent. “Now, watch it rise. We will overcome the struggles of today.”

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