Travel Weekly, YTB and the Paradigm of Annoyance
If you Google “YTB”, as any potential YTB recruit might, here is the entry that the search engine will serve up to you as the top search result:
YTB International, Inc. was recognized as the 26th largest seller of travel in the US in Travel Weekly’s 2008 Power List, based on 2007 annual retail value …
That is some pretty powerful recruiting material. After all, Travel Weekly is “The National Newspaper of the Travel Industry” according to its tagline. Travel Weekly’s “About Us” page indicates that Travel Weekly provides “all of the late breaking news, analysis and research that travel professionals need to succeed.” In the case of YTB, in fact, Travel Weekly has provided more – it has provided the credibility YTB has needed to succeed.
In writing this editorial, I am breaking some rules of good etiquette. I am quite frankly criticizing a competitor, and therefore my motives could be deemed suspect. I’ll take my chances.
Put simply, why does Travel Weekly and its very serious and competent editors continue to provide YTB a platform from which it is able to more capably market itself to the detriment of professional travel agents?
In its 2008 Power List, Travel Weekly listed YTB with 131,101 outside sales representatives and $414.5 million in sales. Travel Weekly defines “Travel Seller” as an”intermediary that sells travel through any medium (electronic and telephone for example) directly to consumers.” By this definition, according to Travel Weekly, YTB is the 26th largest seller of travel in the country. They are listed alongside AAA, American Express, Carlson, other entities that most consumers would recognize as travel agencies. In its editorial, it is clear that Travel Weekly is according YTB the same status as the other companies there represented, travel agencies all.
Naturally, YTB is quite proud of the honor and includes mention of its award in the boilerplate language of every press release issued by the company (go ahead, check it out). The status conferred on YTB by Travel Weekly is front and center on the YTB website and on its promotional literature. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that Travel Weekly’s knighting of YTB is the single most significant marketing coup YTB has achieved. Who could blame YTB for letting others know of the honor that the “most influential” travel newspaper has provided? Indeed, it is hard to even speculate as to the value of the award to YTB, but it must be calculated in tens of millions of dollars as a substantial aid to their marketing and recruitment efforts.
There are those who might argue that Travel Weekly is simply and objectively reporting the facts.
It is not clear by Travel Weekly’s criteria, however, why YTB is listed as a seller of travel and not organizations like, for example, AARP‘s travel division. Like YTB, AARP provides its membership with a booking engine, powered in its case by Expedia, along with other travel benefits. Although exact figures are difficult to ascertain, AARP’s numbers appear to rival those of YTB with regard to the retail sale of travel.
It is not likely that Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann will be interviewing any AARP members or even AARP travel executives in Travel Weekly’s upcoming Preview 2009 where a YTB executive will be featured. Why not? AARPs program, its leadership and members, though they appear to meet Travel Weekly’s definition of a travel seller, do not call themselves travel agents. YTB’s consumer-members do, however, call themselves travel agents. And yes, Arnie, real travel agents find that annoying.
It seems the most influential publication in the travel industry has swallowed uncritically the YTB marketing it has helped create. In its first virtual trade show, Travel Weekly sponsored a panel to discuss the “future of the home based travel agent”. In any panel convened to debate a serious topic, it makes great sense to invite notable professionals with years of industry experience. On the panel was Scott Koepff of NACTA, Van Anderson of host agency America’s Vacation Center and Kim Sorenson of YTB. Really? By the way, Sorenson’s inclusion on this panel merited a YTB press release and is frequently cited in YTB marketing efforts as proof of his expertise in the travel industry.
In its upcoming virtual trade show, Travel Weekly has again included YTB’s Sorenson to sit in on a panel , the topic of which is “What Proves You are a Travel Pro?” Interesting topic, but again, YTB receives a platform from which it can market to more recruits.
The list of grievances against YTB is a lengthy one. They recruit on the basis of “travel benefits” with an evangelical fervor that would make Jimmy Swaggart envious. But then anyone can be a travel agent, right? Take a look at the California attorney general’s suit against YTB and you can gather a pretty good compendium of the problems inherent in their “anyone can be a travel agent” sales pitch.
So after this lengthy introduction, what is the problem? Simply that Travel Weekly’s continuing to legitimize YTB in this way is cynical and without merit. Certainly it creates a controversy that will draw travel agents to attend events and read columns, but it also allows YTB to continue to use Travel Weekly’s equity in the industry to leverage its own position and marketing. YTB is no more a travel agency, and its RTAs are no more travel agents, than AARP and people over 50 are respectively. But apparently this fine distinction evades the editors at Travel Weekly. This is not, as Arnie Weissmann has stated, merely an annoyance. It is a damaging slap in the face to true professionals to indicate that all one needs to be a travel agent is an online booking engine and a business card. It denigrates the study and hard work that bona-fide travel agents put into their craft.
YTB recruits who seek a free ride on the FAM train drain the life out of a vital resource for professional agent training and education. YTB’s insistance that anyone can be a travel agent by owning one of their websites denigrates the value of the profession to the public and creates yet another hurdle for travel agents to leap across; but in this instance, the hurdle’s bar is raised by the “most influential” publication in the industry.
If memberships like YTB’s qualify as travel agents, then Travel Weekly should immediately change its circulation strategy to include the membership of AARP. Let me suggest they put YTB in charge of circulation – their qualifications as recruitment agents are without question.
It is, as I have said before, the travel industry’s own fault that it has so poorly defined the term “travel agent” that even the editors of Travel Weekly apparently don’t understand who is and who is not a travel agent. When I say “travel industry” in this context, I am excluding suppliers. Suppliers have one mission – to sell their product. It is not their task, nor should it be their task – to define who is or is not a travel agent. But the reality is that Travel Weekly’s editors and writers do know the difference. Yet, the most “influential” publication in the travel industry continues to provide a platform for an organization that is antithetical to the ethic that real travel professionals ‘profess’. You see, there is the distinction. A professional “professes”… that is a far cry from evangelical recruitment of consumers to the pretense of professionalism. I am not suggesting that Travel Weekly should ignore YTB. I am suggesting, however, that they should no longer provide YTB with a seat at the table of travel professionals and a platform from which to market.
YTB bears greater resemblance to a travel club than a travel agency. As does AARP. The “most influential” publication in the travel industry should be able to figure that out and come to the support of bona-fide travel agents.
Let me suggest that Travel Weekly could adopt a more stringent set of criteria in next year’s Power List and for its definition of both “travel agent” and “industry expert”.
Travel Weekly should unequivocally quit recognizing YTB’s recruits as a travel agents.