Your income will increase, consumers will have greater awareness and respect for you as a professional and “instant agents” will disappear. How? Read on….
For many years, the Airlines Reporting Corporation provided travel professionals with a benefit that agents hardly recognized. In some way, shape or form, most agents were connected with an ARC agency. The formalities of airline ticket issuance and the requirements of managerial oversight in an agency provided the industry with an ordering principle, an array, around which the entirety of the professional status of the travel agent depended. A consumer expected a travel agent to be associated with a local agency, and it was clear who was and was not an agent. The situation was not ideal – agents found themselves largely controlled by a group of suppliers. But in the evolution of the industry, the structure worked. As cruise-only and vacation-only leisure agencies began to appear, those early entities largely modeled themselves after the ARC agencies with storefronts, managers and a similar business format. These storefront agencies served as the incubators for new agents entering the profession and on-the-job training was the norm. New agents, fresh from a travel school, spent many tedious hours stuffing envelopes, organizing brochures and being mentored before being turned loose on clients.
Things changed. Paper tickets vanished. The Internet empowered the consumer and travel agents were no longer necessarily “local”. The loss of airline commissions made ARC a less centralizing force in the industry. Travel schools and college courses in travel began to close as predictions of the demise of the travel agent became accepted by internet pundits. But with the disruption came new opportunity. Home based agents began to appear in greater numbers and host agencies specializing in servicing those sometimes far-flung agents sprang into existence. However, a new type of agent began to enter the world of travel without formal training and, worse yet, without a network of other local agents from whom to learn the trade. Soon, less than scrupulous organizations began to take advantage of the industry’s disarray by insisting and capitalizing on the fact that now anyone could become a travel agent and, according to the pitch, see the world for free. With no official industry-wide definition to indicate otherwise, these “instant agent” companies were right – anyone could be a travel agent. No training necessary, no skills required.
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 industry has seen well-intentioned but incredibly disjointed attempts by single organizations and even individuals to establish a definition of what constitutes a travel agent. However, the current disarray practically guarantees the arrival of the next permutation of the instant agent model that will surely arise in the absence of any standards. Worse yet, the implosion of a major MLM or “instant agent” organization, or even a large host agency, may well bring about a 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.
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, a professional travel agent 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.
Travel agents must take it upon themselves to protect their own integrity and economic base. The goal of standardization should not be to stifle competition or to discourage innovation, but 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 fresh entrants into the industry will be assured of a living wage. The profession will have a new opportunity to flourish.
I have confidence that the leadership in the travel professional industry is up to the challenge. There is leadership in our largest travel agencies and at a grassroots level capable of initiating the changes necessary to take our fate into our own hands. The ASTAs, ARTAs, NACTAs and OSSNs of the world could set aside their differences for the good of the industry to work together to define a feasible model. 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.
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 are the same issues dealt with by other industries that have 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 marshalled 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, your host agency owners and association presidents to consider the stakes and to discuss the issue in your ranks with your travel agent associates. Forward this article and challenge your leaders and business associates to consider whether 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.
A profession should be filled with “profess-ors” – those willing to stand and speak to an issue. Let’s hope that there are in our own industry a few leaders who will rise to the challenge.