Nobody needs a travel agent any more | TravelResearchOnline


Nobody needs a travel agent any more

As I meet agents all over the world, many wonder what makes me qualified to speak with authority to the travel industry. It’s a legitimate question and I am happy to  explain. In 1979 I decided to change careers. “I stopped being a starving musician and started being a starving travel agent.” I’ve been a professional speaker and author since 1999 and I often mention the previous quote in my presentations. When I speak to travel agents, it’s always met with laughter and giggles. It was a joke that rang true 31 years ago and still sounds familiar to many of today’s travel professionals. But, some things have changed.

I speak both inside and outside of the travel industry. I also meet quite a few newcomers who have changed careers to get into travel – on purpose! It might be shocking to industry veterans to learn that many of them do it specifically to make money. Yes indeed there are people making serious money as travel agents right now. Sometimes those coming into the industry today succeed because they “don’t know any better!” They aren’t burdened with years of habits or skills honed in an industry that is vastly different than it was when I entered it.

Just a few years ago I met a man who left his comfortable job in technology to open a cruise-only agency. Because he “didn’t know better” he charged $100 per person as a professional consulting and services fee. He’s now recognized as one of the top cruise producers around. He rarely has any difficulty collecting his fees in addition to any commission he may earn. How did he do it so easily? He “didn’t know any better.”

My travel is booked through a corporate travel agency–one that never let old habits get in the way of their success.  The agency was purchased by a former bank officer with the intent of turning it from a losing business into one with a healthy profit. Because the new owner “didn’t know any better” she calculated their fees based on creating an exceptionally high level of service. She was blissfully unaware that most corporate agencies were instead focused on transaction charges and self-service automation. With a fee that was more than double the local average, her agency quickly rose to enviable profit levels and has stayed there ever since. Who knew?

I have also met countless industry veterans that did “know better” but realized that new circumstances called for new strategies. One fellow I know completely reinvented his twenty-year old agency by flipping his revenue upside down! His business was built on a foundation of commissions and overrides. Today it sees most of its income in the form of consulting and other professional fees and profit is the norm–not the exception.

In all these examples there is a common thread uniting them. Surprisingly, it is not just the fact that they all charge fairly high fees. They all are keenly aware of the new reality–nobody “needs” a travel agent any more – you have to make them “want” you. To make them want you, you have to be as much or more of an amazing experience as the travel itself. You have to be the product!

You all sell the same cruises, tours and flights as everyone else. The only distinguishing factor is you and your service. All the agencies above excel not simply because of their fees, but because their fees allow them to fund a level of service and personal attention not possible with commission alone. While others struggle against rising costs and ever-diminishing commissions, they forge ahead putting their focus where it really counts: service.

Nolan Burris is an author, former travel agent, failed musician and self-professed techno-geek. He’s also a popular international speaker both inside and outside of the travel industry.  He is the founder and chief Visioneer of Future Proof Travel Solutions ( based in Vancouver, Canada.  Nolan’s believes that if can change the way business works, you’ll change the world. His goal is to spread the message of integrity and ethics in a techno-driven world.

  2 thoughts on “Nobody needs a travel agent any more

  1. Robert says:

    I understand the need to charge a professional consultation fee but as a rookie in this business I don’t think I have the luxury of charging a fee. I do charge a fee which is applied to the cost of the trip if the client books with me. What is your opinion of this? Thanks.

    1. John Frenaye says:

      I think that is perfectly reasonable. There are many agents with decades of experience who are charging fees and applying it to the booking when the client travels. If the commission levels are enough to sustain yourself, this is outstanding. However, my caution is that without fees (and by applying them to final payment you are without fees essentially) your income is 100% controlled by someone who does not have your best interest at heart. My advice (for what it is worth) is to work on establishing yourself and your expertise as quickly as possible and move to a fee based system where you are in control.

      I lived this when the airlines cut the commissions. It was nice to make $800 on a business class fare to Australia. But when that went away, it was incredibly hard to make it up in fees when there was no fee program in place.

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