few weeks ago, Consumer Reports Travel Letter received ink in newspapers around the country by distributing its "research" on obtaining low air fares. It concluded that the large Internet travel agencies performed better than brick-and-mortar agencies in finding the cheapest prices.

Travel Weekly's technology reporter Dennis Schaal did an analysis of the study in our June 17 issue and found that Consumer Reports, to put it kindly, did a poor job of interpreting its own data. It also neglected to take into account alternatives to GDS fares that travel agents can access on behalf of consumers.

Though I am normally a fan of Consumer Reports, in this instance I felt it did a double disservice -- first to agents, who may lose business as a result of the misleading conclusions, and second to consumers, who may falsely deduct that agents are, in general, a more expensive outlet for purchasing all types of travel. Though CR intended to help consumers, an argument could be made that it unintentionally misled consumers.

In fact, an argument is being made that consumers are best served when they use travel agents. It's being advanced by Gordon "Butch" Stewart, chairman of Sandals Resorts International and Air Jamaica.

"Quality travel is not a commodity," Stewart recently told me. "I feel bad for consumers who think that it is. You can't just look at vacation packages that sound similar and then make decisions based upon price alone. Anyone can put together a brochure filled with beautiful photographs and promotional copy, even when they bear little resemblance to reality."

Travel agents, who have the benefit of hearing the feedback of hundreds of travelers, can help people make sure they're going where they'll have a satisfactory experience.

"Agents must work for consumers. If they sell someone the wrong trip, they'll end up with unhappy clients who will bad-mouth them and never return," Stewart said.

Stewart, like many suppliers, runs training programs to educate travel agents on the finer points of his products, and said he feels best about bookings he receives from agents belonging to his Certified Sandals Specialist program. "When the bookings come in from them, I feel most confident that the guest is being matched to the property that's the best fit," he said.

Similarly, Stewart believes there's linkage between the high repeat-visitor rate he enjoys and the high percentage of business he gets from agents.

"Agents know what they're doing."

He pointed out another way that agents help consumers: They provide valuable feedback to suppliers. "I confess -- agents have had a tremendous impact on how Sandals and Beaches have developed," he said. "When something's not right, agents let us know. And when they talk, we listen -- they're speaking on behalf of our guests. Simply put, without agents, Sandals would not exist in its present form.

"I've had a 21-year love affair with travel agents," Stewart continued. "It's been a mutually beneficial relationship for both of us, but when agents and suppliers work well together, the biggest beneficiaries are consumers."

Following the airline cuts to zero-base commissions, there were many articles that called into question the future of travel agencies -- some questioned if they would survive.

Stewart cannot conceive of a world without agents. "No consumer could hope to do enough research to match what years of experience and training have taught travel agents. To my mind, travel agents seem to be getting more relevant with every passing year, not less."


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