For those that are not familiar with the term, Happy Days was one of the most successful television sitcoms ever. It was the catalyst that spurned Ron Howard and Henry Winkler to super-stardom and spun off some great (and not so great) shows such as Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy and Joanie Loves Chachi. It had a ten year run which was very unusual for a television series back then—much less today. But on September 20, 1977, the Fonz was in the improbable situation of being in Hollywood and having to jump a live shark on water skis. It was quite a departure from the routine antics of the Happy Days crowd and many feel it was the beginning of the series’ decline. Happy Days started to go downhill when Fonzie jumped the shark. Over the past few weeks I have been hearing that the travel industry has jumped the shark as well. I am not so sure.
I have heard people citing every reason in the book for the decline. The top three contenders are card mills, associations, and vendors.
Card Mills and MLMs
While I am not a “lifer” in this industry, I have almost 15 years experience. I have always heard of the card mills and MLM companies, I cannot recall (nor can any of the “lifers”) a time when these firms were running so rampant. Of course we have YTB, but there is also TraVerus, Inteletravel, and ProTravel Network, and more. Undeniably they are selling travel. Mostly it is to themselves if their reported sales are any indication; but they are selling travel. The executives of these MLM companies know there are loopholes in the system and are poised to exploit them to their benefit for as long as the can—and have even said so much in public. I am certainly no fan of the Card Mill/MLM model and I feel it is a detriment to the industry and consumers alike, but they are very similar to a fly. They buzz around and irritate the hell out of everyone for a while, and then their lifespan is up and they crash to the ground. Joystar has made the plummet and there are others right behind.
There used to be a full alphabet of associations that were dedicated to the travel agency community. It seems that ASTA, NACTA and IATAN have been the only associations who have retained that true interest in the industry. ARTA seems to have lost any voice they once may have had. CLIA has never been an “agency” association but a hybrid; and they have certainly seen the financial benefits of burning both ends of the candle. At one point, YTB reported, through their rep network, that CLIA had staff at YTB headquarters processing ID card applications—CLIA denied it. The Travel Institute (formerly ICTA), and one of the only true credentials in the industry, has just entered into a partnership with TraVerus (a MLM company) to provide a combination TAP (Travel Agent Proficiency)/MLM test complete with questions supplied by TraVerus. While this is a recent development, TraVerus is not a stranger to The Travel Institute as they have been piggybacking on the “CTA” designation for years, while The Travel Institute remained silent. Other associations are rumored to have “quiet partnerships” with the MLM crowd as well. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with this. These organizations (non-profit or for profit) need to make money to support themselves or to earn a profit. It is no different than any other business. My only wish is that they would stop with the smoke and mirrors and come clean as to which side of the fence they stand. Once it is clear, then the agents can make the decision to support them or not.
Many people like to blame the vendor for the “decline” in the industry. Perhaps there is some merit to these arguments, but likely not. Yes commissions have been reduced or eliminated. Yes the NCFs have increased. Yes many are now selling directly to the client. But why not? Their main function is to make money selling their product. Just as any agency’s main function is to make money selling travel. I am sure that many Samsonite dealers were not too pleased when agencies began selling suitcases. Face it, the suppliers are looking for ANY channel to move their product. That channel may be MLM, direct to consumer, or even the latest—the ability to research and buy travel via your cable company’s on demand system.
For the longest time, agents were seen as the shark swimming in the tank. The vendors needed our support to move their product and rewarded us accordingly. There was a time when identifying yourself as a travel agent would get you an actual upgrade. Now it gets you a non-reclining middle seat near the lavatory and that great little room between the elevator bank and the ice machine overlooking the dumpsters that are empties at 5am. To be honest, I think we may have let them down. Technology is progressing, and rather than keeping up our speed (sharks need to keep moving to survive you know), we became complacent.
So, as the industry was getting ready to jump the shark, they took a good look down and realized that a lot of the sharks were very slow, dying, or dead. Jumping the shark was not nearly as risky as it once was.
So where does that leave the slow, dying or dead sharks? We are still swimming around; albeit at a slower pace. Travel Research Online has been providing resources and tools to pick up the pace and get the oxygen flowing again. But when it comes down to it, you are the one that will ultimately determine what type of shark you are. I know when I entered the industry nearly 15 years ago; I was a completely different breed of shark than I am today. I am constantly swimming and changing and adapting. I am still around and I plan to be for a long time. What about you? What kind of shark are you?