Can a MLM travel agency change its spots?July 1st, 2013 . by John Frenaye
For years, I have been a staunch opponent of MLM-type travel agencies*. Call them what you will—a pyramid scheme, network marketing company. I have never apologized for my position on what I feel is a scourge on the thousands of well-intentioned professionals who are legitimate travel agents. I applaud Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, NCL and the other suppliers who took a stand (and still do) about not supporting this type of business model because of the damage they do the reputations of their primary distribution channel and the product itself.
YTB, or Your Travel Business, undeniably was the leader of the MLM agencies. Travel Weekly recognized them as a top seller of travel for many years (although the self-reported numbers never matched up with reports filed with other entities) and even went so far as to name one of their founders as a “most influential” person in the travel industry. YTB rose to the top with close to 50,000 “agents” at one point who were mostly selling their own vacations and attempting to recruit others into the business. Had they ditched the MLM model, they would have been a powerhouse host agency. But they didn’t and plodded onward through lawsuit after lawsuit. Eventually, the founders left the company—one passed away and the other two were ousted by the Board. The business was sold, then it wasn’t. Then it was sold again to Jeff Scott with First Travel Alliance; and then when that fell apart, they re-grouped and “re-focused” on travel—or so they say. Oh, and somewhere in between they filed for bankruptcy.
Certainly there are some legitimate travel sellers within YTB’s ranks. With their agent numbers now hovering about 2500, there are not many. While they claim to be returning to their travel roots, that remains to be seen. I am not too confident. However, one industry expert, Dr. Marc Mancini feels otherwise. Mancini was hired by YTB several years ago to develop a travel agent course. The program was costly, had few enrollees and was ultimately abandoned. Recently, Dr. Mancini, who used to be a regular speaker at most of the larger travel industry shows, has come to the defense of YTB explaining how they have corrected fourteen problems. Below is Dr. Mancini’s endorsement of the new YTB (published April 2013).
Yet, in another video making the rounds, YTB appears to be back to using many of the same old lures to recruit new members into the YTB fold—free travel, huge bonuses, cars, etc. While part of the video promotes using FAM trips as personal vacations (3:30), the focus is solidly on recruiting (5:45 and 7:15).
Can a leopard change its spots? Perhaps. I can say that I have seen a marked decrease in YTB agents in general, and have not seen any of the trade show recruiting tactics in several years. However, a lot of the verbiage used is identical to the verbiage used to amass the large number of recruits back in 2007-2009. The difference now is that most of the older recruits realized they earned no money and the “recipe to success” was in fact costing them; and they left. Now, YTB has a fresh audience of people who may have never heard of them before. And they do talk a good talk.
Travel has become more complex. There are more options, people are traveling differently than they did in years gone by, and working with suppliers has become more complex. While it is not rocket science, there is certainly a lot of room for mistakes and errors when you are not focused on the task of travel. I hate to think of the problems that might be encountered with a group cruise when the focus of the agent is toward a Range Rover perk, rather than delivering the travel experience the client has purchased.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Dr. Mancini? Has YTB cleaned up their act sufficiently enough to operate as true professionals in the industry? Or have they merely put another coat of lipstick on the pig?
* I started a blog back in 2007 on this issue. When YTB essentially disintegrated in 2011, I only updated it when there was some significant development. If you are interested in reading the saga, you can access the blog here.