News that ASTA chief executive Tony Gonchar is leaving the trade group after just 19 months for a top post at American Express elicited accolades from industry members, including the organization’s president, for Gonchar’s efforts in setting ASTA on a new course.
“Tony has been fantastic — the best asset that ASTA has had in a long time,” ASTA president and chair Nina Meyer, CTC, told Travel Market Report. “He has accomplished what our goals were when we hired him – the basic turnaround for ASTA.”
Gonchar has signed on as vice president of the American Express U.S. Consumer Travel Network, where he will oversee the group’s growth, according to American Express, starting Aug. 6.
“Literally, Tony had an offer that he couldn’t refuse,” Meyer said.
Meyer to be interim CEO
Meyer, an agent with Express Travel in Miami, will serve as ASTA’s interim CEO while a search committee interviews candidates to succeed Gonchar.
Meyer said she did not expect the search process to take as long as the search to replace Bill Maloney, Gonchar’s predecessor as ASTA chief executive. Then-president Chris Russo served as CEO for nine months before ASTA hired Gonchar.
“We feel very positive, and we do not expect to stagnate until the next CEO is onboard,” she said.
Reflecting on the implications of Gonchar’s departure for ASTA, Meyer replied, “The last 19 months have been very exciting, and there will not be a slowdown of this process of moving forward. We will build on our recent successes.”
Achievements under Gonchar
Gonchar’s accomplishments at ASTA were many, Meyer said. “It is difficult to pinpoint one best achievement.” Among the most important of these, in her view, are the following:
• Government relations, particularly work by national and local chapters to defeat tax bills that would burden travel agencies. “We have had so many wins in the advocacy area,” said Meyer.
• Raising consumer awareness of travel sellers, especially by facilitating the media’s favorable coverage of travel agents’ expertise.
• Industry relations, both with GDSs and with other trade groups, including CLIA and NTA. “Tony has spearheaded significant liaison with other trade groups to work toward common goals. This is new for ASTA and the industry,” said Meyer.
• Restructuring of ASTA’s national staff. “We have fantastic senior staff who are all onboard with the executive leadership’s direction.”
• Fiscal health. ASTA’s balance sheet will be much stronger at the end of the fiscal year, according to Meyer.
• Membership growth. ASTA’s Join and Be Counted one-week membership drive in May netted between 60 and 70 new members. There also are positive residual effects of the campaign in promoting ongoing membership recruitment, Meyer said.
“The membership drive worked well because of the cooperation of travel agent industry leaders,” she said. “It was great to see the support from all the agency consortium, and we will build upon that visibility and success.”
Positive press for agents
Among travel agents who shared a favorable view of Gonchar’s tenure at ASTA was Dan Smith.
Gonchar deserves credit for boosting the image of travel agents in the media, said Smith, owner of Travel by Dan/Caribbean Adventures in Seattle and director of NACTA’s Pacific Northwest chapter.
“He was able to get us some very positive press about the value of agents in the national media, including the New York Times,” Smith said. “He really worked to raise the profile of agents.”
Smith also praised Gonchar’s role as an advocate for the industry on Capitol Hill. “He really tried to minimize any damage to us coming from the government.”
Regarding the implications of Gonchar’s departure for ASTA, Kari C. Thomas, CTC, said, “This could be a tipping point.”
While Gonchar’s tenure brought a degree of stability to the organization, more works needs to be done, added Thomas, president of Will Travel in Langhorne, Penn.
“I'm looking at it as an opportunity to take a good look at ASTA and see that maybe we need to make some big changes, stop doing things the same way and open our minds to doing things differently,” said Thomas, who served on ASTA’s board from 2006 to 2010 and is a former chair of ASTA’s Young Professionals Society.
Thomas said she hopes that a new CEO will help make ASTA, whose membership has declined significantly over the years, “the one voice for the travel industry.”
“Ideally every travel agent should be a member. We need to get people to realize how much ASTA really does. Maybe the new CEO will make sure everyone realizes that.”
One ASTA state chapter officer called Gonchar’s departure a “blow to ASTA” – more because of the trends he set in motion than because of any major accomplishment during his tenure.
And former ASTA president Mike Spinelli commented that Gonchar’s tenure was too brief to leave any footprints with ASTA. “ASTA needs to start anew,” he said.
Maria Lenhart and Andrew Sheivachman contributed to this report.