What I Got From ASTA’s IDE in Puerto Rico and Why You Should Go To Peru in 2012

Recollections of the American Society of Travel Agents’ Puerto Rico International Destination Expo (IDE) 2011 – Marc Kassouf of PRIDE Travel shares his experience from this year’s IDE and why YOU should attend next year in Peru!

By Marc Kassouf

I had the opportunity to attend this year’s ASTA International Destination Expo in San Juan, Puerto Rico in April, and am very glad I did. Much like the World’s Fair, the IDE is designed to showcase a destination through education, tour, and networking. Expo delegates were greeted with the warm hospitality that Puerto Rico is known for, and the Puerto Rico Tourism Company rolled out the red carpet before, during, and after the conference. And, if the days were packed with learning and networking, the nights were equally packed with fun, food, and dance, and of course Puerto Rico’s national drink, the Mojito. Everywhere we went, we were hosted with plenty of good food and good drink, including the refreshing lime and mint rum beverage of choice: the world-famous Puerto Rican Mojito.

WanderLustJournal.com editor and freelance travel journalist Marc Kassouf

First and foremost, though, the IDE is a chance to meet suppliers both local and international. The local suppliers, tour operators, hoteliers, and CVBs all came out to meet ASTA member delegates. There were many opportunities to conduct business, during and after the show, as well as make new contacts and network. The trade show portion also includes two days of ‘show floor’. Some delegates may chose to just walk by, grab a brochure. But, if I’m taking this much time out of my business week to attend, I want to make the most of it. This means spending time at booths to reconnect with old friends and partners from suppliers, and making new ones. There’s no rule about how long to spend, but suffice it say if you’ve ‘done’ the show in an hour or two, you’ve missed the point. Sometimes, if I’m ‘done’ early, I go back to see what I missed, or to that booth that was too busy the first time around. Some of my best contacts and partners are made at trade shows, and the ASTA IDE provides a great forum for making those connections to grow, enhance, and expand your business. The trade show floor was also a showcase of local and international destination suppliers, folkloric and cultural shows. Even local artisans were present so delegates could get a feel for the best shopping trips for those unique souvenirs to suggest to clients. Everything from woodwork carvers, artisans, and glass specialists to simply kitschy knickknack booths.

Another unique part about the International Destination Expo is the educational FAM component. Many options were available for attendees to participate in tours before, during and after the conference itself. Destinations and suppliers of the host city of San Juan and other nearby cities opened their doors and hearts to us. Some hotels were giving away practically free nights to those wanting to experience their unique selling points and better sell the product to our clients. Most educational tours were included with your registration or there was a small fee. Due to my schedule, I only had the chance to do one tour, but it was a thorough full day visit to the colonial city of Ponce in the south, the island’s second metropolis after San Juan and just a few hours away by bus. In addition to all the sights of Ponce, including a timbered fire house in the main square, a castle belonging to a rum baron, and breathtaking sights of the ocean, we also stopped by arguable the most impressing museum in the Caribbean or Latin America. Old masters and new ones rubbed elbows at this world class museum.

On the education front, delegates to the IDE had the opportunity to earn the prestigious Puerto Rico Travel Expert designation. While the program is also offered online, including at Travel Agent Academy, to become fully certified as a PRTE, you need to visit Puerto Rico. So, the tourism company and ASTA provided an enhanced in-depth program for attendees and you could complete the requirements all in one place. If I didn’t already have my PRTE, I definitely would have done the program on site and put another great feather of education in my travel expertise hat for my clients.

Additional educational programs onsite at IDE focus not just on destinations, but on helping agents increase our business, one discipline or skill at a time. Everything from technology, sales, product, destination and business skills was covered, and ranged in educational level from beginner to advanced.

Probably one of the most important components of attending the IDE, however, is the access to our brass, the ASTA leadership. Due to its format and structure, the International Destination Expo present better opportunities to meet, interact with, and pick the brain of ASTA senior execs and board members, more so that at the TradeShow. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but at the IDE, it seemed that Tony Gonchar and Chris Russo where everywhere, and very approachable. Granted, both these gents are fairly easy to talk to one on one, but try to grab them at the TradeShow and you just may be out of luck. Aside from informal access to ASTA leaders, many sessions and seminars showcased them. We heard of Tony’s vision and road-map for the future of ASTA, an appetizer really, with promises of more details to come. And, if you were a member of the Young Professionals Society, we got a special treat: a half hour of dedicated time to share our thoughts, feedback, and ask questions of Russo and Gonchar.

So after all is said and done, having been to my first IDE, would I do it again? Absolutely! The value gained from the experience, the tours, and contacts made are worth the costs several times over. As a business proposition, it’s definitely an investment in the growth of our agency… and it’s just plain, good, educational tax-deductible fun!

SoCalASTA Member and Travel Insider Marc Kassouf is owner and CEO of Pride Travel, which specializes in catering to the needs of gay and lesbian clientele. Kassouf holds numerous industry certifications, most notably by CLIA, the Travel Institute and various destination visitors’ bureaus including Europe, Asia, and the Americas. He sits on two board committees of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, has traveled to nearly four dozen countries and sailed on more than 60 cruises. Marc’s headshot photo is copyright Nathan DePetris/PRIDE Travel, used with permission.

–First published American Society of Travel Agents Newsletter (SoCal), Sept 28, 2011.