The proliferation of retail business models inspired by emerging technologies and shifting consumer preferences is a very healthy thing, though it has also led to an identity crisis of sorts. Last fall's Travel Weekly Travel Industry Survey showed that only 25% of the people who sell leisure travel self-identify as a "travel agent." More see themselves as a "travel specialist" (32%), and another 36% indicated they preferred "travel advisor" or "travel counselor."
And suppliers seem to have embraced the term "travel professional," as in "Book at SupplierDirect.com or call your travel professional."
While one might argue that "travel professional" could refer to any number of industry jobs, no one is making the case that people who plan and sell travel shouldn't consider themselves professional. They provide expertise; indeed, the words "specialist," "advisor" and "consultant" all support that notion.
But it also makes sense that, given the options, suppliers have embraced the term "professional" over all others. Every image and phrase in their marketing and sales pieces, every word uttered by an employee in public, every detail regarding employee dress and conduct are fair game for a brand manager's scrutiny. So of course they would want the people who recommend their products to be positioned as professionals.
I have heard travel sellers draw comparisons between their roles and those who are paid to provide health, financial and legal advice. Travel counselors are, of course, subject to relatively few laws, regulations and licensing requirements vs. people who preface their name with "Dr." or put "Esq." or "CPA" after it.
Those designations are critically important to those professions. In the public's mind, there's a strong correlation between the titles and stringent training and educational requirements behind them. Those titles are de facto branding elements in a professional's practice.
Van Anderson, co-president of Avoya (No. 33 on the Travel Weekly Power List), a host agency that provides support to a network of independent retailers, has spoken to me on several occasions about the importance of professionalism among travel sellers but always comes at the topic from an unusual perspective.
"The last place to start would be with more government licensing requirements," he said, "but within the industry, suppliers could make it more difficult to become an approved seller. Right now, it's too easy."
Precisely because suppliers are so focused with their own brand image, Anderson believes, they should be concerned not only with the positioning of those selling their products but with the reality of who is selling their products.
At root, Anderson's worry is that all who sell leisure travel share a singular perceived brand image by consumers, and that it's dragged down by its poorest examples.
Recent research in the psychology of marketing and advertising suggest that thought follows behavior as much, if not more, than the other way around. And similarly, Anderson believes that among the first steps to projecting the image of a professional is to live like a professional. And since that may require greater resources, Anderson links professionalism and compensation.
But his linkage is nuanced. While he believes suppliers are important partners in enhancing the perception of retailer professionalism, he is not necessarily angling for more money from suppliers.
"We can't depend upon suppliers to raise commissions, we can't depend upon prices going up, and we can't depend upon consumers buying more," he said.
What he is hoping for from suppliers is more involvement in vetting the agents who represent their brands.
Anderson said he didn't expect a supplier to turn away a legitimate booking that comes in over the transom. "Maybe you take the first booking, but for the seller to continue, they have to go through [the supplier's] training," he suggested.
And Anderson connects the dots between training, opportunity and supplier recognition. "The only thing more important than money is the opportunity to make it," he said. People have to feel good about what they're doing, he added, and having brands convey legitimacy upon only qualified sellers could translate into pride and sales opportunities and ultimately the ability to make more money and live a professional lifestyle.
Anderson believes the time is right because supplier support for what is traditionally called the agency channel has never been higher. "It isn't that things are wrong. In fact, they've never been better," he said. "It's just that, when things are going well, it's hard to find the time to make further improvements.
"Millions of dollars are spent [to strengthen the relationships between suppliers and intermediaries]. If we got everyone into a room and talked, I think the end result would be raising the bar and, ultimately, giving travel professionals the lifestyle to be professionals."
And when that happens, he believes, consumers will notice. "We have to elevate the feeling [about travel sellers], not just in the industry but outside. When I walk through the airport, I see these signs with pictures of kids and the caption, 'I want to be a fireman,' or 'I want to be a chef.' If I saw one saying, 'I want to be a travel agent,' I'd probably drop down to my knees and cry."
I agree with Anderson that the time is perfect for this discussion. Shortly after the economic crisis of 2008 began, I received a call from the head of an agency group who wanted me to facilitate a conversation with a cruise line president. The gist of the conversation was that the group's agencies were in serious trouble and that short-term, they needed additional compensation to keep the channel functioning.
Anderson is making the call now, not asking for more money but for creative strategies that accomplish everyone's business goals and to set things up so that when tougher economic times do come, there will be no need for that other call.