tan Plog is good at asking questions. The man whose research has both tracked and influenced the direction of travel over several decades sold his company some time ago, but, as a consultant, he continues to think about what questions we should be asking ourselves.

"Contrary to the opinion of many, travel agents exercise influence over their clients," Plog said. "Not always, but at important times. I have seen that over and over again in my research."

So the first question agents and suppliers need to answer, Plog believes, is: In which situations does influence occur, and when does it not? A simple question, but no one knows the answer. And the answer could profoundly change the way travel is sold, increase agents' clout and help suppliers market through agents more effectively.

Plog's second question revolves around the true costs of various forms of travel distribution. The airlines, Plog observes, shot themselves in both feet when they cut agency commissions and placed their bets on the Internet. The stated goals of these actions were to reduce costs and increase passenger loyalty. Plog argues that his research shows that, in fact, they reduced loyalty, and he strongly suspects they increased costs.

Suspects, but doesn't know. What, he asks, does it cost to sell through a travel agency vs. a supplier's call center vs. the Internet? Travel agencies and the suppliers that still rely on them could both benefit by knowing the cost to sell travel products through various channels.

"Arguments will arise in the future from some of the remaining industry segments as to whether they should continue to support the travel agency community," Plog said. Research, he thinks, will provide arguments that will address those concerns with meaningful statistics.

And what, he wonders aloud, are the components that go into the making of a model, profitable travel agency? "Some agencies do well while others struggle, and there isn't sufficient depth of analysis to help a manager put together a plan for success. Selling high-commission items may be part of the model, but clearly there are other key components."

Likewise, he wants to know how have brick-and-mortar retailers in other industries succeeded in dominating the Internet in their segment, keeping Web-only retailers at bay. "Amazon.com got the jump on selling books on line, but Barnes & Noble is gaining strength in the segment. Similarly, everyone thought car lots were going to fail against Internet-based car sellers, but the old-style car dealer dominates the Internet business. There are lessons to be learned if we ask the right questions."

A related line of inquiry also could be made to determine what do today's travelers seek when they go to a brick-and-mortar agency vs. what they look for when they go on line. "Travel agencies have to meet all a travelers' needs if they want to increase revenues and profits. Growth of sales on the Internet has slowed down in general, but not in travel." Knowing what attracts travelers to the Web will be invaluable information to storefront agencies.

Plog's agenda of questions is at once basic and ambitious. The answers may be too costly for any one player of our fragmented industry to obtain, but the questions alone have value. Sometimes, it can be very helpful to be reminded just exactly what it is that you don't know.

Clarification: Last week in this space, I wrote about the Cendant/Galileo GDS pricing initiative called Momentum. In the course of the column, I reviewed previous initiatives, and unintentionally omitted a program that deserves mention for advancing the evolution of the pricing models: The Sabre DCA Three Year Option. In this program, Sabre reduces airline's booking fees by 10% from 2002 levels, and in exchange airlines must post Web fares and participate "at the highest level of connectivity" with Sabre. (It launched with US Airways, and now includes additional carriers.) Agencies can access all fares without reduced or eliminated incentives.


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