Arnie Weissmann A quote in a press release announcing a preferred-supplier relationship between Sceptre Tours and Vacation.com caught my eye. When youre [a Sceptre] Emerald Partner, you earn money while you sleep. When was the last time a tour operator gave you commission for doing nothing at all?

Money for nothing is indeed an unusual incentive, and in this case it was being offered by a company whose leadership had stated that it shied away from consortia because they rewarded passive behavior.

Over lunch in December 2004, Sceptre owner Bert Accomando told me, Im not comfortable with the consortium concept. I think the person who does the most work should get the reward -- it shouldnt automatically go to someone just because he belongs to a group. I want proactive partners.

Generally speaking, travel agents, when theyre asleep, are not proactive. It appeared that, on the surface, Sceptre had taken a 180-degree turn on the question of consortia, and I called Accomando to find out why.

Its not my thinking thats changed, he said. Its the business model of the consortium or, at least, Vacation.com.

The sleeping V.com travel agent who is making money, he said, is one who has already shown some commitment to Sceptre by completing its Emerald Partner course, which includes product training. The benefits of being a partner -- which are not automatic to all V.com members -- are a private-label Web site and access to a toll-free number that jumps them to the head of the line when they call to make a booking. Most importantly, when consumers call or go to the companys Web site and want to book direct, the reservation is taken and the booking assigned to an Emerald Partner travel agent, who is given a commission. Yes, even if the agent is asleep at the time.

What attracted him to Vacation.com, Accomando said, is its Engagement program. I was disappointed in the consortium model because, basically, you paid an override to do business with their base of agents. But Vacation.com is aggressive in the consumer arena as well, driving business to their agents. Thats a huge difference.

Accomando said that five years ago he brought Sceptre from being an air charter company to being a tour operator because tour packagers had a brighter future. A little more than a year ago, he decided to book only through travel agents. And now hes signed up with a consortium -- a middleman organization that bridges suppliers and travel agents.

In an era when the common wisdom states the middleman is endangered, Accomando has bet on the value-add of three layers of middlemen, himself included -- tour packagers, consortia and travel agents.

Hes certainly not alone in going this route, and Sceptres future will in some ways be a case study to assess the value of middlemen in the era of supposed disintermediation.

I will watch with interest. In the recent past, Sceptre has evolved dramatically, V.com has evolved dramatically and its agents have had to evolve dramatically. But if their evolution demonstrates anything, its that no one -- least of all middlemen -- truly make money if they sleep.

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