ut don't you think... ." The reporter was nothing if not persistent. "But don't you think that by the very nature of preferred supplier relationships, travel agents cannot give unbiased advice?"

She had now asked the same question five different ways, each implying that preferred supplier relationships worked against a client's interests.

I replied, in a slight variation from the previous four answers, that it's my belief that any travel agent who recommends a supplier based on commission incentive alone won't be in business for very long.

They might make a quick buck in the short term, but a travel agency depends upon repeat business. And you only get repeat business from satisfied clients.

If recommendations were made based on commission considerations alone, travel agents would steer clients to suppliers whose products aren't necessarily a good match for a client, and the client would be dissatisfied.

In other words, market forces that benefit consumers are at work on travel agents.

But perhaps she kept asking the question because I kept giving indirect answers. While not wanting to be quoted as saying that travel agents give biased advice, I would not state unequivocally that travel agents give unbiased advice.

Why not? Because unbiased advice is an oxymoron. Advice is, by its nature, subjective, not objective.

An agent, one supposes, could lay out facts objectively and let a client choose options for him or herself. But that's not advice. That's research.

Travel agents give advice based on their own experiences and the experiences of their other clients. They find out which suppliers in various categories offer quality products and provide good customer service, and choose to work with them.

And the benefits of working with a travel agent go far beyond the dispensing of advice. In fact, an agent's close working relationship with a preferred supplier benefits a client in many ways -- it can lead to discounts for clients and assist in conflict resolution when there are problems between clients and suppliers.

I was reminded of the benefits travel agents provide during conversations I recently had with two top agents, Valerie Wilson of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York, and Richard Turen of Churchill and Turen Ltd. in Naperville, Ill.

Wilson's is a $250 million-plus agency on Park Avenue; Turen's weighs in at about $4 million and is located in a suburban Chicago strip mall.

What they have in common is extraordinary customer- and supplier-relationships. Both have a fierce commitment to their clients and aren't afraid to drop a preferred supplier that lets down a client.

Knowing this, suppliers bend over backwards for these agents' clientele.

Both agents have dabbled in publishing recently, also to the benefit of their clients. Wilson just published a book called "Valerie Wilson's World, The Top Hotels and Resorts." The glossy coffee-table book contains photos and descriptions of some of the world's best properties, from African bush camps to Tuscan farmhouses. Many of those listed are among Wilson's preferred suppliers.

You can be sure that if you're one of Wilson's clients headed to one of these lodgings, and you encounter some problem, you'll do far better at resolving your conflict than if you had booked at an agency that had no previous -- or promise of a future -- relationship with that property.

Turen, on the other hand, publishes a newsletter for his clients that critiques cruise lines. His analyses are blunt and honest (and, importantly, subjective, not objective -- he tells it as he sees it rather than simply presenting unbiased data).

The cruise lines are aware of his newsletter, and a cruise line district sales manager talking to Turen about a problem one of his clients encounters would take pains not to get on his bad side.

It's fair enough to ask if travel agents give unbiased advice. But is unbiased advice really what consumers want?


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