Occupy Wall Street began as a protest against perceived economic inequalities, focusing on bankers and financiers. The protesters' concerns are not without justification, given that corporate earnings are at a record high and CEO pay is now 350 times the average worker's pay, up from 50 times the average from 1960 through 1985.
At the same time, the official jobless rate is calculated as about 9%; when including people who are working part time but want to work full time as well as those who have stopped looking for a job, the unemployment rate is 17%.
The Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to cities as diverse as Nashville, London and Rome. News media and politicians have been buzzing, suggesting participants are anarchists, socialists, "a bunch of hippies" and more, who really don't know what they're protesting for or about.
Christopher Elliott is a journalist and consumer advocate who is co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance and founder of On Your Side, a service that mediates consumer travel issues and problems. He recently wrote a column that mentioned his observation of protesters in Zuccotti Park (in lower Manhattan), noting that the participants looked neither like anarchists nor crackheads. Rather, he wrote, they resembled demonstrators of the 1960s.
He also mentioned a larger protest in Times Square that focused on inequality, which inspired him to ask if it might be time for "travel to be occupied." One person commenting on one of his columns suggested that the Transportation Security Administration could use a little occupation because of its long and growing list of exceptions to its pat-down policy. Elliott observed that the least we can do is expect the TSA to screen every air traveler with the same level of care. He went on to discuss loyalty programs that separate travelers into the "haves" and "have-nots."
My thoughts turned to comments I have heard from a growing number of clients voicing their frustrations with practically every air carrier about baggage-check fees (which often vary based on one's status in the carrier's loyalty program), premium-seat fees and more.
In addition, some have expressed unhappiness with the increase in restricted areas on cruise ships, such as restaurants, lounges and spa areas and an ever-growing list of things that cost extra now but might have been included in the past. It isn't much of a stretch to envision Occupy Airlines or Occupy Cruise Lines.
But I have good news. We travel retailers needn't worry even if Occupy Travel becomes a reality, because we are all but invisible to a large segment of the public.
Travel retailers have historically been unsuccessful in communicating clearly to the consuming public why they matter and why they should be an integral part of travel buying decisions. I had that driven home in a conversation with a repeat client who hadn't booked with us in six years but had responded to a newspaper ad. On asking why she had been booking with another agency, she replied, "Oh, I wouldn't do that. I was very satisfied with your company's service. I've been booking directly with the cruise line."
When I said we often offered rates and amenities that suppliers might not, and that there was no charge for our services, her electric-shock reply was, "Well, why don't you run ads that tell me that instead of these ads for the cruise line?" It doesn't get much more to the point than that.
And there are other facets. A Forrester Research study from 2009 flatly stated that travelers are angry with the Web. It offered as proof a survey result showing that only 33% felt that travel websites did a good job, vs. 39% who had held that view a year earlier.
A PhoCusWright study showed that 33% of travelers would prefer and pay more for the services of a traditional travel agent. Another Forrester study showed that 28% of those who booked travel on the Internet would prefer to use an offline agent if they could find a good one.
Getting out the message about why use a travel agent -- and specifically why to use you -- can be an expensive proposition that exceeds the budgets of all but a handful of agencies. Add to that the fact that retailers have for years been conditioned to run only advertising and marketing campaigns that promote primarily the supplier(s) or a particular trip or group of trips, and many find themselves in unfamiliar territory.
It is apparent that there is a need to educate the consumer as to the value of a travel consultant. Studies by respected enterprises clearly show that a substantial portion of consumers would use the services of a travel consultant, even paying more to avoid the hassles of doing the work themselves.
What can be done, and who can do it? Individual travel retailers, perhaps even the very largest, haven't the resources needed to implement such a far-reaching campaign. There are, however, a dozen or more consortia and retail trade associations that have a vested interest in making a program like this work. It's time for each and every one of them to step up and launch a multimedia campaign extolling the advantages of the travel agent to the consumer.
The campaign has to do more than mention in small print that the consumer should call a travel agent. It needs to be one that deals solely with the advantages of using an agent and that helps the consumer identify good ones.
The immediate reaction of some of these groups might be that they lack the funds to implement such a program, and conventional wisdom and thinking supports that position. But I submit that there are indeed enough suppliers that truly believe in the contribution the travel retailer makes that would assist with funding the effort to make it viable and successful.
And be sure to list every one of those suppliers in the ads so that the public clearly sees the endorsement. And then let the retailers support those suppliers that champion them. Charlie and Sherrie Funk own Just Cruisin' Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and have provided agent and agency-owner training throughout North America on every facet of agency operations. They are the authors of several books, including "A Recipe for Travel Agency Success," "A Blueprint," and "You're Invited," a complete guide to hosting consumer travel events.