As President and CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA)—the world's largest and most influential travel trade association—Richard M. Copland is on top of the world. A professional travel consultant himself, Copland opened his first travel agency in the 1960's. When he was not busy finding the right vacation packages for his clients, he practiced law—specializing in mediation, contracts, and travel law. As the chief spokesman for travel agents everywhere, Copland works on increasing ASTA's visibility in the media and improving agent education and training.
1. Where are you now?
I'm in my office right now, because I have responsibilities to attend to and decisions that have to be made on an hourly basis. I'd rather be in Hawaii, playing golf.
2. How often do you travel?
I travel a minimum of three to four times a month, primarily on business.
3. What new precautions do you take before and during trips?
There are two. One is to allow a little more time to catch a flight than I did in the past. The other is to reduce the amount of hand luggage I carry. I can honestly say I have absolutely no reservations about flying.
4. How did you get started in the travel industry?
Thirty-three years ago, a piece of property I owned had an empty store available. My partner, Jack Tillem, who had just finished serving as ASTA's New York City chapter president, suggested we utilize the space to open a travel agency. I asked him, "How do you do that?" He replied, "We'll figure it out." I guess we did.
5. What changes have you seen in travel agencies since September 11?How do you think they will change over the next six months?
There's no doubt Americans are traveling less frequently than they did prior to September 11. Travel agents are going to have to work harder and use different approaches to get their customers traveling again. More time will have to be spent speaking to clients on the phone to drum up business. Consumers are looking to use businesses they know and trust—especially when it comes to travel. They want to speak with a knowledgeable professional because they have a lot more questions and concerns than they had in the past.
6. What steps has ASTA taken to help agents bring back customers who are reluctant to travel, for any reason?
Easing client fears and providing accurate information is the only way to get people traveling again. To accomplish this, agents have to be well-informed and have easy access to information. ASTA posts and regularly updates a Travel Crisis Information Web page, containing links to relevant industry news on airline operations, tourist attractions, cruise line departures and more. In addition, ASTA did a national TV public service announcement with Mayor Giuliani that was designed to encourage travel. We also have a new series of ads in USA Today promoting cruising. ASTA is also participating in the NYC Tour-a-Thon, in which our members pledge to book at least 10 visitors to New York City in the coming months to help the city's ailing tourism industry. Overall, ASTA has been working extremely hard to get positive and accurate information to agents and the traveling public.
7. Is the Internet the biggest threat to the future of travel agencies?If so, how are travel agents fighting that threat?
The major area where the Internet poses a threat to travel agents is in the sale of point-to-point airline tickets. However, most agents have learned to reduce their dependence on selling flights unless they can do it profitably by charging transaction fees. I don't believe the Internet is a threat to travel agents on leisure sales. To the contrary, the amount of information overload on the Net only confuses consumers and makes the services we provide more valuable. Smart agents are using the Internet to their own advantage by creating their own sites and using them to attract customers.
8. What is the best way for a traveler to choose a good travel agent?
Consumers can log onto ASTA's Web site (www.ASTAnet.com) where they can do a customized search for a travel agent by location and specialty. There's a comfort factor for consumers who use an ASTA member agency because members must adhere to a strict code of ethics. Consumers should look for the ASTA logo. It stands for integrity in travel. I think many consumers choose their travel agent through recommendations from friends and family who are satisfied customers.
9. What is the travel advice you most often give these days?
My words of advice are: stop watching the gloom and doom shown on TV and get back to traveling again. Traveling is the best thing Americans can do for themselves and for their country during these difficult times.
10. What is the biggest change in travel you have seen in the past year and what are the most positive things happening today?
Two words—September 11. For years, consumer awareness of the role travel agents play has been a top priority of agents. Unfortunately, it took the tragic events of September 11 to make huge inroads in raising that awareness. In the days after the terrorist attacks, when the country and travel came to a screeching halt, agents came through like the true professionals they are. They worked day and night to help their stranded clients—and even travelers who hadn't booked with them—get back home to their families. More than ever before, the traveling public came to understand the value of using a travel agent and the do-it-yourselfers learned that without a travel agent, you're on your own.
—Interviewed by Karen Blackman