Those who market franchises, organize consortia, sell hosting services to home agents or otherwise promote an affiliation designed to help agents succeed have an interesting challenge.
Every one of them talks about what benefits they offer agencies and, naturally, gives examples of members who have succeeded.
Yet every one of them also knows that at some point or other, a member agency of theirs has failed.
Though the words "fail" or "went out of business" were never mentioned, the subtext of this reality was dissected on stage last week at Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld 2011 and Home Based Agent Show.
A general session titled "Help Me Engage From Home" featured Jackie Friedman, president of the host Nexion; Vicky Garcia, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the franchise Cruise Planners/American Express; Scott Koepf, vice president of sales for the host Avoya Travel; and Dwain Wall, senior vice president and general manager for CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. (the first is a franchiser, the latter is a host).
Joanie Ogg of HomeBasedTravelAgent.com and industry consultant Mary Pat Sullivan moderated.
In describing the differences between a host and a franchise, Garcia said that a franchise is "a business in a box" which provides everything from a recognizable brand name to negotiated preferred supplier agreements.
On the other hand, a host relationship, Friedman said, is a bit "schizophrenic." One operates as an independent contractor under one's own brand but books suppliers under host-agency credentials.
The panelists all spent some time reassuring audience members that agents who belong to their organizations retain a fair amount of independence in the way they run their businesses.
I first thought the topic was so prominent because there must be great concern among potential recruits about possible restrictions. But I eventually realized there was another reason for the reoccurrence of the "independence" theme in the conversation.
Although each panelist seemed to believe his or her solution could help agents succeed, the "independence" message was also a reminder that agents are ultimately responsible for their own success or failure.
"None of us can guarantee success," Koepf said. "The options that we provide allow independence within each model. But you determine hours; you are the owner. We all have to step back from 'travel' for a moment and realize this is a business session. We're not selling a travel product. This is about business."
Wall warmed to the topic. "You're the brand," he said. "Consumers aren't buying from CruiseOne or Cruise Planners. They are coming to you because of your knowledge. What is your value proposition? Why would someone buy from a home agent rather than a larger agency or call center?"
Earlier in the session, Ogg had recalled growing up in a family that depended upon a franchise. Her father owned a Taco Bell.
Wall emphasized the difference between a franchise like Taco Bell and one that sells travel, saying, "People want to buy complex products from individuals they have a relationship with. That's what separates us from Taco Bell."
Koepf agreed. "At Taco Bell, you don't remember whether you bought your taco from Joe or Fred. You bought it from Taco Bell. Your biggest competitor is a call center where customers don't really get to know the agent. We can help you compete, but ultimately you have to build the relationship."
Following that session, attendees went to a home-based agency "think tank," where they talked about their struggles and successes and shared tactics that worked for them. As I listened, I thought about the previous session's tacit admission that the organizations represented on stage do not guarantee they can help a business grow, but that success is ultimately the responsibility of a member.
During the panel, Friedman summed up the balance between what an organization brings to the table and what the business owner must bring.
She was asked, essentially, about managing the expectations of potential members.
"It's not so much a question of expectations as desire," she said. "We can only ask that you take advantage of programs we offer, and provide advice about how you can influence the customer. And we hope you'll do that. But at the end of the day, it's about desire rather than expectations."
In other words, the expectation of success is not nearly as effective as the desire to succeed.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.