Well into the 1990s, 50% of ARC-appointed travel agencies had gross bookings of less than $3 million (and the majority of those were under $2 million). These brick-and-mortar agencies were for the most part generalists, positioned to handle the needs of any traveler walking through the door.

That reality shaped the strategy and message of a lot of agency groups back then. A consortium or co-op may have comprised little guys, but if the membership was large enough, gross numbers would convert to muscle when negotiating with suppliers. Quality helped, but quantity would do.

Having groups of aggregated, smaller players worked for suppliers, too. Before e-mail, the return on investment for reaching out to smaller agencies wasn't impressive, but the larger an assembled group was, the more efficient an effort targeting them would be.

This model hummed along right up until things were taken to their logical extreme, when large sums were spent rolling up the smaller and regional consortia into larger consortia. But no sooner was this accomplished than the tide shifted, and suppliers, now enabled by technology to reach smaller players inexpensively on their own, demanded a lot more quality and loyalty from a group. And size mattered less.

There were other pressures on agency groups. Virtuoso upped the ante for everyone in several ways, not least of which by showing what agencies with sophisticated databases (and wealthy clients) could do.

Consequently, large agency groups replaced the press releases that had announced sign-ups of new members with announcements of plans to cut deadwood from their ranks. Some groups also aggressively challenged Virtuoso's dominance in the luxury space.

For the most part, agency groups succeeded in downsizing while raising their quality and sharpening their demographic focus in every conceivable way, just in time for another shift in supplier attitudes -- perhaps not in articulated attitudes, but certainly in behavior.

While sophisticated agents with a focus on quality clients are still the Holy Grail, the stock for small, unsophisticated, generalist agents has risen among suppliers. Generally speaking, suppliers believe that they do better by being inclusive of all. In parallel, agents are understanding that they, for the most part, can't be as choosy as they want to be about their clientele.

It has now been two months since Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. cut ties with groups it labeled "card mills." No matter what you think of that move, these groups consist of members who are arguably the lowest-producing agents on Earth (not in aggregate, but individually).

RCCL scored points with traditional agencies by taking this stance. So did Steve Perillo, who cut ties with one of the groups, YTB, even though he didn't have a formal arrangement with them. But two months have passed, and no other supplier has publicly taken advantage of an opportunity for publicity and the support it might gain among agents who actively oppose these groups.

When I talk to suppliers about this, they speak almost as one: "Why should I shun them? These agents may be low producers, but in total, I'm getting some business, and they may produce more down the road."

Another sea change: Groups that have put a lot of effort into presenting themselves as major, upscale players find that they can't be pure in their positioning. At the recent Signature conference, much was made of the consortium's preferred-supplier arrangement with seven brands within The Travel Corporation portfolio. Some, like Red Carnation Hotels, certainly seem a good fit for Signature's luxury posture. But others, like Trafalgar Tours, are aimed squarely at the mass market.

I asked a TravCorp brand president why he thought Signature included mass-market brands with the upscale ones.

"The reality is that there are Signature agencies that have some mass-market clients," he said. "If they have to go outside their preferred vendors to book them, it doesn't help Signature, and the agency won't get the override. But it's not just Signature. There's an aspirational component in all the luxury agency groups. It's just a reflection of reality."

All of this has a vaguely back-to-the-future feel to it. Technology has made small outfits players again. And as more agencies compete for pieces of the luxury pie, the slices are getting a bit thinner for some.

A high-producing agent with wealthy clients will always be king of the hill. But it turns out that suppliers and agents alike are coming to the conclusion that the hill can get higher for all when the base is broad and well supported.

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