“Regulation” is a double-edged sword and one not to be used without hesitation. For every benefit that regulation brings, it is certain that a counter-argument can be made. However, the timeliness of the issue for travel professionals seems particularly appropriate. The travel industry has recently seen the implosion of a large host agency. It is highly likely that one of the large MLM models will likewise find itself on the ropes in the near future. These events may well bring very unwelcome scrutiny from state legislators, as consumers across the country watch their deposits and paid-for trips vanish along with another chunk of professional credibility. No good will come of allowing a legislator to decide who is or is not a travel agent without serious and concerted input by the industry. It is now time for agents turn to their leadership and ask for the topic to be seriously discussed and for the leaders of the industry to state a case for or against self-regulation.
The definition of a “profession” is a “group of people pursuing a common learned art”. Typically this involves a common body of knowledge, a formal education process, and a code of conduct and standards of entry into the profession. By this definition, travel agents in their current state are falling a bit short of a profession. Not only that, but the difference between a pseudo-agent and a bona-fide travel agent becomes a matter of degree, rather than a matter of kind. A self-regulatory organization, such as the National Association of Realtors, exercises regulatory authority over an industry or profession by setting professional standards and creating a barrier to entry that protects both the consumer and the professionalism of the industry. While self-regulatory organizations and associations are far from perfect, the alternative is the one we now face in the travel industry: anyone can be a “travel agent”, and the public is at risk. Even industry media seems incapable of determining who is and is not a travel agent. The message to consumers is that travel agents lack “professionalism”, and therefore, there is no real value to using one. The resulting chaos serves no one except the imposters.
Travel agents must take it upon themselves to protect their own integrity and economic base. It is hard to imagine another trade the size of the travel professional industry with such a dire lack of standards. Realtors, lawyers, accountants, massage therapists and hair stylists all have enforceable industry codes that guide education, entry, ethics and professional standards. The Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicates approximately 101,000 people in the travel industry classified as “travel agents”, with approximately 85% of those in the role of retail distribution to the public. Travel and Tourism remains the largest service sector business in the world. While the travel professional component is a relatively small part of that equation, travel agents occupy a tremendously important position in the distribution channel. Yet, the fragmentation of the industry keeps wages and profits low and the barriers to entry nonexistent. In the absence of standards, the consumer is totally at risk: their travel agent may have no training and nowhere to turn for assistance with an unfamiliar booking.
The goal of standardization should not be to stifle competition or to discourage innovation, but again – to protect the economic interests of the consumer and the professionalism of the travel agent. In this way, consumers will be assured they are dealing with a trained professional, and industry freshmen will be assured a living wage. The profession will have a new opportunity to flourish.
Likewise, recent calls from some for “suppliers” to tighten their own criteria for who is and is not a travel agent are by and large an abdication of the responsibility of the travel professional industry to define itself. Suppliers have as their first obligation to sell their product to consumers. Most suppliers will use the best possible distribution channel, whether that is the Internet, professional travel agents, or an army of 140,000 “referring travel agents” selling to their brothers-in-law. While some suppliers have decided not to deal with untrained MLM-type agents, that decision is based, as it should be, solely on the supplier’s own interests if and when the cost of supporting ill-educated instant agents becomes too high.
It is sometimes difficult to imagine the various associations, agencies, consortia and parties at interest meeting in the same room getting productive and progressive work accomplished together. As someone once said, travel agent association in-fighting is so fierce because the stakes are so small. No doubt the initial reaction of many will be to feel threatened by the possibilities inherent in the organizational entity necessary to accomplish and effect self-regulation. However, I have confidence that the leadership in the travel professional industry is up to the challenge. In our largest travel agencies and at a grassroots level, we are capable of initiating the changes necessary to take our fate into our own hands. It begins with a serious discussion among a blue-ribbon panel of industry experts and economists to study self-regulation and the merit of crafting preemptive legislation to be introduced at the state level. Carlson, Amex, Liberty, AAA, Travel Leaders and a dozen other large retail brands easily have enough market share to bring much of the industry along in a consensus for a working definition of “travel agent.” The leaders of host agencies in the industry would certainly benefit from standards and could be called upon to contribute time and insight to a study.
As I’ve said before, one phone call from the president of one of the above organizations to the president of another of the organizations could start the ball rolling. A few leaders stepping up to the challenge now could unite travel professionals under a single banner trademark that would signal to the public a badge of professionalism. Yes, there will be obstacles, including antitrust issues, along the way. Agents with years of experience or niche expertise will chafe at the notion of continuing education or other requirements. But these same issues have been handled by other industries who long ago realized the benefits of association and defining standards. I have no doubt that such a movement would find great support at the grassroots level where dollars of support from each participating individual agent would provide vast resources for a campaign for public awareness. This is not to ignore the great expense and effort necessary to mount such a campaign, but to acknowledge the great power of tens of thousands of travel agents that might be marshaled with appropriate leadership.
Do you think the discussion worthwhile? This editorial is not meant to be definitive, but provocative. Call upon your consortia and franchise leaders and your host agency owners and association presidents to consider the stakes, and then discuss the issue with your travel agent associates. Forward this article and challenge your leaders and business associates to consider if the industry should take a lead in policing itself by drafting and adopting uniform standards. Let your leadership see that this is an issue that matters to their constituency. At the very least we will hear the industry debate its own future in a meaningful way.
Let’s hope a few industry leaders will rise to the challenge.