At the end of the day, what exactly is within a travel agent's control?
Not commission rates. There might be an opportunity to hit an override goal, and an agency can try to negotiate where that override bar is set, but at the end of the day, it's the supplier that sets commissions.
Product development? Travel agents are often invited to sit on advisory boards, and in most cases their input is sincerely sought and considered, but final decisions on product direction are ultimately made by the hotelier, tour operator, cruise line or airline.
Skilled travel advisers can influence and guide clients toward vacations that will match their interests, their budgets and even their dreams. The adviser's input has weight, but the final decisions about where to go are often made around a family dining room table, far from the adviser's office.
But there is one area where agents have absolute control, according to Stephen McGillivray: With whom to affiliate.
McGillivray is the chief marketing officer of Travel Leaders Network (TLN), the name for the new entity that will come together once Vacation.com, Travel Leaders Associates and Results Travel officially merge on Jan. 1.
Because it is one of the most meaningful decisions in which an agent has the final say, McGillivray said that competition among agency groups for the best agents is fierce. During events such as an inaugural cruise, where top-producing agents from many groups have been invited and are congregating in one spot, the various group leaders who are also present find themselves simultaneously playing offense and defense, discreetly wooing prospective members and staying as close as possible to their own members to thwart potential poachers.
It's clear that agency groups such as TLN have long understood that their strength lies in both the quality of individual members and the credibility of their collective membership. TLN is an interesting example of how aggregation and consolidation can amplify the voice of an individual seller and even inject a sense of self-determination into relationships where decisions might previously have seemed out of their hands.
TLN and Leisure Group president John Lovell pointed out that after the merger is completed in January, his group will, in some instances, be responsible for more than 50% of a supplier's business. Agencies might not be able to dictate commission terms, but they can walk away from the supplier's table if the terms are not (to use Lovell's phrase) "equitable."
So what, exactly, is being amplified when agents come together? Why is it that agents can now sit at a table as equals with some suppliers?
The answer might lie in an observation TLN's technology chief, Jose Ferreira, shared with me over a drink after the consolidation announcement: "You know," he said, "travel isn't about transactions."
Just the week before the TLN announcement, I had attended Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. "Travel is not transactional" was a recurring theme.
This is 180 degrees from the old-school, "Glengarry Glen Ross" sales mantra "A.B.C. -- Always Be Closing."
I asked a few Virtuoso members what being nontransactional might mean to them.
"A transaction is what an online booking engine gives a consumer," said Lisa Mazzillo of Power Travel International. "For us, it's not that someone calls me and says, 'I want to go to a beach,' and so I sell them Aruba. I want to understand what they want to do on the beach. What do they want out of their vacation?"
Nontransactional selling is about understanding that people know they only have a certain amount of time in this world, and they can have experiences that they might have only dreamed about having, said Nancy Stein of Aldine Travel.
"When you understand that that's their state of mind, you also see that they're not simply looking for the best deal. They're looking for breadth of experience, not a transaction."
Christopher Koch of Travel Experts in London began selling travel after a "life-changing" experience as a traveler when he visited Greece, Turkey and Italy in 2011. His epiphany was that travel not only changed his life but that, through travel, he could change the lives of others.
"I ask people to describe what they would want to say at dinner on the final night of the trip," he told me. "What would they have found to be most important? I use their answer to frame their trip. Yes, it's transactional in the sense that someone writes a check. But much more importantly, it could even be less about travel than about getting closer to their family."
The truth is that if travel were only transactional, it would soon become commoditized, and suppliers would be in a race to the bottom characterized by thinning margins, with their weakest competitor setting pricing through discounting.
Individual agents might sometimes feel they don't have much direct control over their businesses. But as long as they understand that selling travel is not transactional, their channel strength is unmatched.