Seeing the future, revisited

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannIt's not unusual for media to look back 12 months as a year comes to a close. We do so this week, and next week we'll look forward, in our Preview 2013 issue.

A variation, and cautionary exercise for those making predictions, is to revisit previous forecasts. Consider the article "Selling Travel in 2010," published in September 1995 by the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (now the Travel Institute) in Travel Counselor magazine.

A writer asked five consultants what they thought supplier relations, products, employment opportunities and operations would look like 15 years down the road.

Judging with 20/20 hindsight, it was hit and miss. In fact, it was acknowledged up front that predictions couldn't possibly be wholly accurate because some consultants took diametrically opposing viewpoints.

The article's timing, just months after the first airline commission caps, clearly colored predictions, for better and worse.

T & E Management's Bob Burke noted that the supplier-agent relationship had been "ambivalent" 15 years earlier and would remain so into the 21st century because, as in poker, "nobody likes to split the pot."

The airline caps likely influenced Robert Moss of Travel Intelligence to say that "distribution is driven by supplier economics" and that there'd be increasing movement to performance-linked compensation. But when it came to specifics, he got lost in the weeds, predicting agencies would adopt a dealership model and that remittance would be directly with suppliers, and away from "industry structures like ARC."

Roberta Schwartz of Realistic Learning Systems had a dim view of the future of corporate agencies. She was partly right in believing technology would replace agents for routine corporate bookings, but she severely underestimated the ability of corporate agencies to add value above bookings. She was ambivalent about the emerging practice of charging fees, worrying that they would drive corporations into direct purchasing from suppliers. Rolfe Shellenberger, of Runzheimer International, also felt corporations wouldn't pay fees.

However, Michael Whitesage of the Prism Group was a fan of fees and believed agents offered significant value beyond bookings. He predicted "travelers will still find agents the most convenient way to plan complex travel."

On the question of product, Burke correctly predicted the explosive growth of international travel, cruises and all-inclusives, though his belief that business travel would move to "packages" has yet to materialize.

Schwartz hit bull's eye after bull's eye on product development, stating that hotels presented the best opportunity for online travel agencies (OTAs), check-in kiosks for cars and hotels would catch on and soft adventure and family travel would boom.

Whitesage was likely mistaken in suggesting that videoconferencing would take "up to one-third of today's travelers off airplanes," though that "up to" is an ironclad hedge.

Employment opportunities? Crystal balls got cloudy, with Burke saying leisure agencies should enlarge their waiting rooms "with plenty of comfortable chairs." (In his defense, nobody in 1995 could've imagined the new Liberty Travel superstore with its table full of iPads and giant video displays.)

Moss, Schwartz and Shellenberger were all optimistic that in the face of commission cuts, agencies could still add value and grow.

A question about agency operations produced the biggest misses.

"Turning leisure agencies into retail stores is imperative," Schwartz urged. Shellenberger imagined brick-and-mortar resilience, saying "retailers should be looking for more locations."

The most spot-on prediction appeared in a separate article published around the same time. In a Travel Weekly column titled "Seeing the Future," one of my mentors interviewed another: Travel Weekly's former editor in chief, Alan Fredericks, spoke with ex-Travel Weekly publisher (and my former business partner at Weissmann Reports) Hershel Sarbin about the future.

Looking at early personal digital assistants (PDAs) in the late mid-1990s -- remember Newtons and Palm Pilots? -- Sarbin saw the rise of home agents/host agencies, though he didn't use that terminology.

He imagined an "army" of agents carrying "the next generation of PDAs," able to research and book travel during personal meetings with clients wherever they met.

"Some of my friends depict the demise of smaller independent agents," Sarbin said. "I wonder if this might not, in fact, be the beginning of something much better."

He called them "SOHO" (small office/home office) agents and said if high-tech isn't linked to high-touch by OTAs,"that's good news for today's agents."

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter.  This page is protected by Copyright laws. Do Not Copy. Purchase Reprint
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