ho owns the Ritz-Carlton brand? Marriott holds the legal title. But according to Simon Cooper, president and chief operating officer of Ritz-Carlton, travel agents feel more than a little possessive about the brand.

"If a guest has an unresolved problem, I hear from his or her travel agent," Cooper said. "Agents feel as if they own the brand, and if their client has a problem, they want to know what we're doing to fix it."

Cooper doesn't resent the inherent presumptuousness of the travel agents' attitude. In fact, he sees it as a positive. "If a client has a problem in an independent hotel, most likely an agent will simply never book another client there. But if there's a problem in one Ritz-Carlton, it affects how they feel about all our properties. They want to know that Ritz-Carlton delivers a consistent experience so they can recommend it with confidence and make their clients happy. It's in their own interest to help us strengthen and protect our brand."

Likewise, it's in the self-interest of suppliers like Ritz-Carlton to strengthen and protect the travel agency model. Not to strengthen it through artificial subsidies, nor to protect it by committing to using it exclusively, but rather to support it in ways that expand the basic business relationship into new areas of mutual self-interest.

Today, most suppliers view travel agents only as a sales force. That's not a bad thing, as far as it goes. But when agents become invested in brands, suppliers and agents alike have something new to exploit, something that can strengthen them both.

By exploiting travel agents, hotels, cruise lines and tour operators have the opportunity to create brand presence at the neighborhood level across the country. Today, travel agents are being given product seminars. Tomorrow, they may be trained on the ins and outs of brand positioning.

As economically marginal agencies have closed up shop, the mean level of business sophistication on the retail side has risen. And many travel agents wouldn't necessarily need much brand training because they themselves already represent important brands like American Express, AAA, Carlson and Uniglobe.

By acting as an army of brand protectors, agents can provide several invaluable services to suppliers. Perhaps of greatest value, suppliers can tap into the relationship agents have with clients. A passenger on a cruise ship may have observations -- pro and con -- about his or her recent sailing that are invaluable, but perhaps the passenger can't be bothered to fill out a comments card. Odds are, however, that he will talk frankly to his travel agent. If agents are incented to pass those comments along, a supplier could have an invaluable data stream about their passengers' or guests' experience.

I am not, incidentally, advocating a dealership model, where an office becomes linked to a specific type of travel product. While a niche focus is important, one natural survival tool all agents possess is the flexibility to move quickly to a new product group as circumstances dictate. And if closely associated with several quality brands, agents won't find themselves stuck only with Brand X.

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