Over the last year, I have noticed a surprising disease beginning to spread throughout the travel industry. It is a horrible disease, one that affects some of us just a little bit, others a great deal, and still others not at all. This disease has the potential to sharply divide our industry in a way never seen before, and has in fact already started to divide us, especially within Facebook groups and online agent-only forums. In fact, as I write this article, I am deeply troubled by this disease and what its appearance means for our industry’s future.
This disease has no name, but its cause is clear: Fees. The concept of charging fees to clients is not a new one in our industry – in fact, Nolan Burris of Future Proof Travel relates how the earliest travel agents charged a fee until we began to operate on a supplier-commission basis in the early 20th century, effectively making our services no-cost to the client. Therefore, we are simply coming full circle. At the moment, our industry has a plethora of travel professionals that have been in the game for 20-30 years on average. They survived the airline commission cuts in the mid-90’s and pulled through the downturn brought on by 911 and the Great Recession, and a great many of them operate under the banner of “we have always done it this way, it works for us and it works for our clients.” On the other side of the coin, we are seeing a slow but steady influx of a newer generation of travel professionals that do charge fees for their time. Sometimes these fees are styled as “plan to go” fees, deducted from the client’s final payments, and other times these are styled as retainer fees, added onto the cost of travel. Either way, those travel professionals who are charging fees are generally very happy they made the decision to do so, and see so many positives that they are quite evangelistic about it.
The disease part comes in right about here: someone wants to know more about how fees work, who charges them, what they charge, how they charge, and so on. The No-Fees group fights back, often with a “We are having this discussion AGAIN?” or taking the self-perceived high road of “Well, I am always available to my clients every hour of every day, and I do anything they need me to do, and I don’t charge a fee”, often with an almost-undetectable air of “..and that makes me better than you.” Another way this disease manifests itself is by someone complaining about an aspect of travel agent daily life that drives them up the wall – perhaps a client that runs them ragged for a cheap vacation package or cruise, or the client that picks the travel agent’s brain constantly and then goes online to book the travel arrangements themselves, cutting the travel agent out of the picture entirely. It isn’t too long before a fee evangelist pops into the discussion, explaining how they, too, experienced those problems and it was only with charging fees they were able to eliminate those problems once and for all from their operations.
It’s a disease because it’s pitting people against each other: the No-Fees against the Fee-evangelists, and the daggers are out on full display. It doesn’t take very long for tempers to rise and words to be misunderstood, and suddenly the conversation is the online equivalent of the major battle scene in “Braveheart.” I am constantly taken aback and at the same time amazed at how so-called professionals allow themselves to get so worked up about this topic. Both camps are guilty of this offense, of letting the disease fester and boil within and eventually burst forth in a heated diatribe.
So what is the cure for this disease of negativity? It is important to understand that we are equal in the fight against this disease. Both fee and no-fee business models work. It comes down to how you want your business to run, and what kind of service you want to be able to provide. It also leads back to the type of clientele you personally choose to work with, and your niche may have some bearing on that. This disease threatens the underpinnings of friendship and industry solidarity that is so vital in the travel professional community. If you’re a fee-evangelist, share how you work when appropriate but do so gently and with respect to the idea that not everyone will be comfortable doing a fee model. Refer them to resources that can help them understand the concept fully and make the determination if that’s the road they wish to take. If you’re part of the No-Fees camp, realize that not everyone feels the “traditional” way of doing business is valid anymore, or allows them to work how they want or with the clientele they want to work with. Do not look down your nose at those who choose to run their business differently than you. Both parties need to understand, clearly, that there is room for both models and that both parties have valid reasons for those models. Neither is better than the other, and neither is right for every travel seller in our industry. If you can’t have healthy and civil discourse about this, then, in the words of Tom Lehrer, “If a person feels he can’t communicate, the least he can do is shut up about it.”
Steve Cousino, ACC, CTA, LS has been a travel professional since 2005 and currently owns Exclusive Events At Sea and Journeys By Steve with specializations in group cruising, individual ocean & river cruising, and personalized experiences in Europe, especially the British Isles. In addition, Steve heads up WordPressForTravelAgents.com, an email-based WordPress education system designed specifically for the busy travel professional. He can be reached at email@example.com.