This week, hundreds of travel agents are meeting in downtown Miami for an event that will tackle some of the major hurdles facing the industry and feature a high-profile keynote speaker in Hillary Clinton. And while they’re in town, attendees will also have several opportunities to check out the destination.

It has, after all, been a long time since ASTA came to town. The American Society of Travel Agents last met in the area in 2003, when the group drew more than 3,000 to what was then called its World Travel Congress in Miami Beach.

The numbers are much smaller this time — about 825, including agents and others in the travel business — but the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau is happy to have them nonetheless.

“There’s so many new developments, new infrastructure, new attractions that have happened quite fast, so it’s an opportunity for the American Society of Travel Agents and their members to see what’s new in Miami,” said William Talbert III, the bureau’s president and CEO. A golf outing, cruise ship tours, visits to Little Havana and South Miami-Dade and other excursions are being offered.

Likely the biggest headlines will be generated Thursday, when former Secretary of State and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton is scheduled to deliver a keynote address. But in four days of sessions and panel discussions at the Hyatt Regency Miami, agents will also hear about a new airline-travel agent data system; the future of the cruise industry; regulatory changes and other issues.

In part because of technology that allows consumers to easily research and arrange their own travel plans, there are not nearly as many travel agents working today compared to a decade ago. Zane Kerby, ASTA’s president and CEO, said airline commission cuts and the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also both took a severe toll on travel agents.

“Those sort of systemic factors did play a role in lowering the total number of travel agents that are in business,” Kerby said. “But the travel agents who are in business today are booking more travel than ever.”

Nina Meyer, ASTA’s chair and sales and marketing director at Express Travel in South Miami, said the group is working to spread the message of the benefits of using a travel agent rather than booking travel directly. She said agents often have greater buying power with access to group rates, local connections that can make travelers’ lives easier and the ability to help a customer if something goes wrong during a trip.

“Consumer awareness is what we’re working on extremely now,” Meyer said. “Because the consumer has forgotten.”

(c)2013 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Photo Credit: The lobby of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami. Dru Kelly / Flickr