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
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
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.
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
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
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'
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
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?