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
"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
"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