he line that separates travel agencies that will thrive from those that will die became increasingly well defined during the course of this year's ASTA World Travel Congress.

In a speech to delegates, ASTA president Richard Copland paced the stage and read depressing statistics off the teleprompter: Only 60% of travel agencies have Web sites. Only 46% bother to create an annual budget. Only 25% have a business plan. And this is after a good deal of consolidation already has forced the weakest agencies to close their doors.

Copland knows he has a problem. He would like for agents to sit at the table with suppliers as equals, but he also knows suppliers don't give blanket respect to the agency community -- they try to identify the 25% that have business plans, budgets, Web sites, etc., and it is that group they're most interested in.

Two events took place at the ASTA congress that may move a significant number of agencies to the "thrive" side of the line: The launch of the ASTA Model Agency Program and the birth of Jurni, Sabre's new consortium.

The program takes agents by the hand and suggests, "Try this -- it works for successful agencies. Also try this other thing -- it works, too. And for step three, you'll want to give this a try." Some of the recommendations may seem basic to a sophisticated agency owner, but in light of the statistics above, there apparently are some agencies that need to have the fundamentals spelled out. But the program goes well beyond the basics to truly insightful advice, and every agency owner will find something of value to take away.

Despite the goofy spelling of its name, Sabre's new Jurni consortium has tremendous promise. By marrying supplier data to agent data and analyzing it all across dozens of fields, Jurni can bring sophisticated CRM technology to home, mom-and-pop and midsize agencies. But its value goes beyond the CRM software capabilities to the data itself, particularly data relating to booking patterns among thousands of agencies. As Jurni evolves, it should be able to yield extraordinarily granular information, identifying, for instance, what types of vacation packages sell best in a member-agency's region or city.

While Sabre has an obvious first-to-market advantage, it really can't build any barriers to entry for competitors that may want to imitate Jurni's programs. Vacation.com, which is owned by Amadeus, already has a large network of agencies and suppliers and can roll out similar programs without first having to build an organization. And companies such as American Express and Carlson have enough scale to analyze data in a similar fashion for their agencies.

The combination of the Model Agency Program, which can sharpen fundamental business skills, and the potential availability of sophisticated data analysis as represented by Jurni's model are among the most hopeful signs to come out of an ASTA congress in years. But the fate of agencies in decline lies more in their own hands than in ASTA's or in other groups offering tools for agency survival. After all, there are already plenty of resources available today for an agency wishing to build a Web site, construct a budget or develop a business plan. ASTA and the consortia can't save someone's business. Only the business owner can do that.


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