Words matter. The decision to style an occupation one way or another can make a tremendous difference in the public’s perception of a profession. “Flight attendants” used to be “stewards” and that “waitress” at dinner last night was a “server.” However, the person who opened your wine was a sommelier. Had a professional massage lately? If so, in 38 states you had a licensed practitioner known as a “massage therapist”, not a “masseuse.” In the other twelve states…well, you tell us.
Are you a travel agent? A travel counselor? What about a trip coach, a travel planner, a travel professional or a travel consultant? Are you a “home based travel agent?” (ed. note – Yikes) What does the lack of a consensus on even what we call ourselves indicate about the industry? How do we manage to distinguish ourselves if we cannot even articulate an appropriate title?
Does it matter what travel professionals call themselves? Historically, travel professionals have gone by many names, including the ones just cited. Some designate specialties, such as “cruise agent” or “Corporate Travel Consultant” while others, like “travel planner” attempted to encompass the entire scope of the role of the travel professional. In current vogue is the appellation “travel counselor” by mega-agencies and smaller boutique agencies alike. Each of the different titles seeks to better define and position the travel professional vis-a-vis the supplier and the traveler.
The public is most aware of the label “travel agent”, a term that developed when travel professionals viewed themselves as agents of suppliers, selling travel to the public. In fact, if you want consumers to find you via search engines, you must lace your site with the term “travel agent” to be found. But, the dynamics and fiduciary role of travel professionals have changed considerably over the past fifteen years and most now would indicate that their first responsibility and allegiance is with the traveler, not the supplier. But there has always been an uncomfortable balance for most travel agents in having a consumer client and a supplier that paid a commission. Now many agents to charge a “plan to go” fee or other service charge, the intermediation of the travel professional is even more ambiguous and in need of clarification. The problem is more than semantic – in addition to the legal issues raised, clarification will help establish a base for better marketing travel services to the public at large.
The term “travel agent” carries a dual edge – the public knows the term, but do they know what a travel agent does? I have argued before that the public is in need of a good education about the role of the travel agent, especially when so many understand the profession to be about selling travel rather than assisting in the purchase of travel. That is a tremendous distinction and one that is often lost on the public. Because the public “thinks” they know what a travel agent does, they are often deaf to the reality behind more important messages like “without a travel agent you are on your own.”
But isn’t the real issue public perception? Educating the public is a much larger task than a simple re-labeling of the profession can accomplish. But the fact remains that as an industry we have done a very poor job of making the public aware of the mechanisms of the profession and the skill set involved. Instead, we have let far better marketers convince the public that with Priceline they can “be their own travel agent” or that for a few hundred dollars and a website they too can be a travel agent and “save on your own travel.”
Changing the way the consumer thinks about a profession is a tremendous marketing hurdle, but other professions have done it. Massage therapists are actually an excellent example of a group of professionals that have agreed on a common body of knowledge, a curriculum of study, rules for certification and requirements for on-going participation in the industry. But in almost every discussion of travel agent certification on an industry wide level, the nay-sayers will present a list of obstacles that cloud the vision of what the profession could someday become. There are always reasons for maintaining the status quo: it’s easier and protects the established order of things. Rocking the boat, talking about certification, definitions and standards is harder, more difficult and will disrupt the way things have always been done.
Very well, but the lack of standards is diluting the travel professional’s brand. What is a “travel agent”?
The discomfort many have with properly naming their own profession is indicative of a lack of identity. Without a fundamental definition of the profession, its standards and role, travel agents will continue to encounter tremendous obstacles in the effort to market to the public on a grander, more sophisticated scale. The label “travel agent” will be with us for a while. But it is incumbent on individual travel professionals, travel companies and our leadership to ensure the word gets out to the public you act on behalf of the traveler and that the skill set necessary is one of discipline and dedication.
Word needs to get out because at the end of the day, words matter.