This may be apocryphal, but a New York City tabloid reported that the Hells Angels, in response to frequent police raids on their clubhouse, came up with a curious public relations positioning.

"We're not a criminal organization," a spokesperson was quoted as having said. "We're just an organization that happens to have a lot of criminals as members."

That quote came back to me as I read through today's first installment of Travel Weekly's new research about the characteristics of home agents.  Many home agents appear to be doing very well, but about half of full-time home agents earn pay that hovers near minimum wage.

These agents take multiple fam trips every year (curiously, part-time home agents, who make less money, take even more fam trips). On average, about a third of full-time home agents' bookings are for friends and family (for part-time home-agents, the figure is more than half), and 40% of full-time home agents -- and more than 60% of part-timers -- can't be bothered to put up a Web site.

Can one draw any conclusions about the professionalism of many home agents from these statistics? Would it be putting home agents in the best light to say, gamely, "The home agent channel is not unprofessional, it just happens to have a lot of unprofessional agents in its ranks"?

I wrote a column about three years ago that questioned whether the home-agent model was sustainable. I wondered if the low volume produced by most home agents would, after the initial hype died down, render them unattractive to suppliers. I rather unkindly compared them to a colorful collection of designer spuds sold in my local supermarket which were attractive but, in the end, were nothing more than small potatoes.

Looking back at the column, I was wrong about a few things -- most notably, my main thesis that the home agent model couldn't last because suppliers would ultimately lose interest in such small players. What I failed to appreciate was that changes in technology significantly lowered the cost of servicing low-volume producers.

As to the question of professionalism, the data now lead me to a new conclusion: It's possible that the relationship between professionalism and financial success is not purely causal. By and large, home agents didn't close brick-and-mortar agencies and go home to reduce overhead expenses. They made a lifestyle choice. They wanted to be home agents because they loved selling travel but wanted to control their work hours and reduce stress.

There's strong support in the data that a significant number of home agents might be highly professional despite their low earnings. The average full-time agent has 16 years experience selling travel, works about 43 hours a week and spends significant time and money on training.

As for suppliers, well, I don't want to tip our hand too much on next week's installment, which examines home agents' value from the supplier perspective. But I do recall a conversation that pretty much sums up how my feelings have evolved: A few years ago I interviewed Michael Gross, president of Global Travel International, a home-based agent organization that has in the past been characterized by ASTA as little more than a card mill. I asked Gross what the average annual bookings were for his agents. "What does it matter?" he replied. "Suppliers never ask that question."

Given how little money some home agents make, I might alter my analogy comparing low-producing agents to small potatoes and instead characterize them as grains of sand. In the final analysis, it really doesn't matter to suppliers if some home agents don't, individually, book much: Suppliers don't see grains of sand, they see the aggregate, a sand castle.

Ultimately, home travel agents are not so very different from other agents. About one in five readers of Travel Weekly is a home agent, and we do not feel the need to speak more slowly when we speak to them. Professionalism is not so much a matter of how much one makes or even how much one trains. It comes down to attitudes toward clients, and I've come to believe that, as a group, home agents are prepared to provide high levels of service to clients.

They'd better. If they don't, clients know where they live.


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