ASTA Conference, 2011 Puerto Rico

The ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) 2011 Conference, held in Puerto Rico, was attended by more than 700 travel agents from around the world. The honorable Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis G. Fortuno, gave the opening remarks. This four day conference focused on the Caribbean region and included a number of tourism talks relating to specific countries as well as additional tools for selling niche trips.

Recently we had the opportunity to sit down with Tony Gonchar, CEO of ASTA, Chris Russo President & Chairman of ASTA, Daphne Barbeito, ASTA Chapter President in Puerto Rico and Mario Gonzalez Lafuente, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.

L to R: Mario Gonzalez Lafuente, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, Chris Russo President & Chairman of ASTA, Tony Gonchar, CEO of ASTA

Tourism is a big business in Puerto Rico to the tune of 1.8 billion last year and employs about 60,000 local jobs. ASTA, while providing invaluable sessions, also allows the agents to penetrate the local markets during the annual conferences through a variety of sponsored day trips and activities. As Mr. Russo, President & Chairman of ASTA indicated, “there is no substitute for an agent who has personally experienced the attractions” – he went on to say, “I know where you are going to dinner – is an invaluable comment when talking to clients and planning their trips.”

By numbers, the majority of visitors to Puerto Rico are from the United States. The expansion of marketing and promotion in select parts of Europe is one of the priorities for The Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Three countries the Tourism Company are focusing their efforts on are the UK, Spain and Germany. Additional flights from these countries have recently been added including charter flights from Madrid & Barcelona. British Airways started offering bi-weekly service from London. Russia is potentially a huge market for future exploration.

Puerto Rico has a lot going for it in regards to hosting visitors from the United States. No passport is needed, no money needs to be exchanged – its a “fly and drive” destination. With the opening of a number of high end resorts Puerto Rico is starting to become a luxury destination again. The W Hotel on Vieques Island and the St. Regis Bahia Beach recently opened while the second Ritz Carlton Reserve in the world is slated to open in late 2012 (6-star resort, being built with 1.2 billion US$). With that said, Puerto Rico’s tourism is diverse enough to also offer a number of budget as well as more mid-range options and several of these have also recently opened.

ASTA Trade-show Floor

It was stressed that Puerto Rico is also an adventure destination. Places such as Hacienda Rico Campo offer a variety of soft adventure options ranging from zip lining, ATV use to trips in Argo amphibious vehicles. Kayaking and rock climbing are available while water and wind sports are extremely popular activities on the island. One must not forget El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s pristine natural rain forest which recently was a finalist for the “New 7 Wonders of Nature”.

Social media is dictating how, why and where people plan their trips. Mr. Lafuente indicated, “We are staying aggressive with changes in technology and changes in consumer behavior” – this includes the Puerto Rico Tourism Company’s social media platforms and online presence. They have recently seen a 66% increase in traffic on their website, See Puerto Rico ( www.seepuertorico.com ), have more than 40,000 likes on Facebook and are increasingly using social media.

Sheraton Conference Center, San Juan

The aging of travel agents was a topic in which we spent some time on including how to attract younger travel agents. Using social media to complement traditional information from advisers/agents is part of the changing agent landscape and tool set. A “Puerto Rico Travel Expert” program created for young agents (under 40) has been very successful. Agents are offered incentives and selectively flown to the country to experience first hand some of the activities and attractions they recommend to their own clients.

ASTA offered a recent webinar directed towards younger agents which attracted over 700 individuals. It was noted that the ADR (average daily rate) of revenue is still higher from clients who book through traditional travel agents.

For more information about ASTA and their annual conferences (the 2012 conference will be held in Lima Peru), visit: www.asta.org . For tourism information please visit See Puerto Rico: www.seepuertorico.com ) and Meet Puerto Rico: www.meetpuertorico.com )


Sheraton Hotel, next to the conference center

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