Arnie WeissmannLast week, I wrote about the positive news stories that have focused on travel agents over the past 10 months and how they have improved the image of agents in the eyes of consumers, suppliers and those who are considering entering the field.

I spent most of last week in Seattle, immersed in conversations with agents and suppliers attending the Travel Weekly CruiseWorld and Home Based Agent Show. And during that time, I gained some insight into why agents were able to survive a 15-year drought of positive news stories and still be important enough to honestly merit all the media attention when it finally showed up.

There was certainly the technology infrastructure that enabled some agents to cut overhead and re-emerge as home agents. And when base airline commissions dried up, many agents were forced to reimagine their business model, and in doing so they evolved from order-takers into fee-collecting consultants. And many agents saw how to take advantage of evolving online trends and exploited cost-effective social media as a means to grow their businesses.

But in sum, it has to be acknowledged that it took a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial creativity and energy to keep alive a retail channel that, to be honest, didn't usually pay all that well.

The reason agents put up with relatively low pay, constant economic, natural and political challenges, long periods of media derision or neglect and constant competitive pressure is that this business -- the entire travel industry, in fact -- is an immensely rewarding place to work.

Last week, I heard several narratives about what keeps agents happily focused on their businesses.

In one general session, Gary Smith, a CruiseOne franchise owner, told agents that after earning his MBA, he went to work on large sales accounts for a business that sold supplies to banks.

"I brought no happiness to the world," he said. "All we could hope for was to not make someone unhappy. If the order showed up, that was good. If it didn't, that was bad." Selling travel, however, is "happiness-oriented."

While Smith asserted, "I'm a businessperson, first and foremost," he nonetheless said his mantra to his staff is, "We're here to make someone happy."

About four years ago, Sherri Rost, an FBI special agent at the time, volunteered to plan trips for a group of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts to which she belonged. She loved it. On the day after she retired from the bureau two years ago, she returned to the cafeteria of her FBI office as a travel agent, with six suppliers in tow. She was off and running, and today she loves being in a business based on trusting relationships.

(Incidentally, at one point when relating her story, she wryly noted that she had years of experience "providing accommodations for people.")

Suppliers who work with agents exclusively are similarly seduced by the industry.

Paula McKay, president of the FIT provider Europe Express, told me, "You have to like what you sell. I was CFO of a company supplying janitorial products. Working there provided a life lesson for me: I realized I could not just get up every morning and go to work for a company whose primary goal was to clean toilets."

Part of what she now likes about the travel industry is its complexity. "There is so much to learn, about destinations, about the airlines, the hotel industry. I never knew how complex the agency channel was, with its several organizations, big agencies, small agencies."

Once someone becomes part of the travel industry, it's awfully hard to consider leaving it. The pay might not necessarily be great, but it still conveys some status, and a travel agent is inherently interesting to others. Let's put it this way: Who would you rather meet at a cocktail party, a travel agent or an insurance agent?

Several people in the travel industry, from travel agents to cruise line CEOs to Disney executives to the mayor of Las Vegas, have told me, "I have the best job in the world."

Agents are, at the end of the day, businesspeople. But unlike some business channels that have been threatened by changes in technology, travel agents kept their profession going because, despite what others predicted, they simply could not imagine a world without travel agents.

Or a life outside the industry.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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