ravel agents I've met with lately
don't fit the profile of agents of the past. Changes in the
industry -- the elimination of base commissions for air tickets,
the rise of the Internet as a sales outlet -- have meant that any
agent who tried to pursue "business as usual" is no longer in
The new breed of agents is more business-focused,
marketing-savvy and technologically sophisticated. Destination and
product knowledge always has separated the good agent from the bad,
and the new agent knows you have to be good to survive -- they're
more familiar with their preferred suppliers' inventory than they
are with their spouse's wardrobe. And they've enhanced the power of
their face-to-face, one-to-one people skills with database and
customer relationship management tools.
All of this spells more opportunity for suppliers. But in many
cases, the agent/supplier relationship is stagnant, defined by the
straight commissions-for-sales paradigm.
Travel Weekly recently ran an article about an Illinois travel
agent who was asked by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts to remove the
words "Disney Specialist" from her business cards and to paint over
a Disney-theme mural on her agency's wall. She was upset and went
public with her story, and Disney responded by explaining to the
travel agent community that it had to establish guidelines to guard
against brand erosion.
The company invested enormous amounts of time and money building
a worldwide brand associated with high levels of service and fine
entertainment and cannot adequately monitor the 50,000 agents who
have completed its specialist program to ensure that the company's
brand is being represented in accordance with its standards.
I understand why Disney needs to guard its brand vigilantly. It
has got a lot at stake. But in brand management, protecting the
brand is only part of the story. Promoting and extending the brand
is the larger part of the work.
I suspect Disney's policies are longstanding. They certainly
precede the emergence of the new breed of travel agents. Many of
the new breed I've met are sophisticated in their understanding of
brand management. In many instances, they have done a formidable
job of brand management themselves -- I'd bet that AAA and American
Express (to start at the beginning of the alphabet) have as much
brand recognition as any of the suppliers they represent -- and
have more positive brand recognition than most airlines they
It's not just the agency chains and franchises that have these
skill sets. I'd bet a one-person, home-based Virtuoso shop has a
more sophisticated understanding of the importance of branding than
owners of most small businesses in any other industry.
In Disney's case, I understand its reluctance to try to monitor
50,000 travel agents for brand compliance. But I think agents
wouldn't be offended if Disney (and other suppliers) created elite
levels of their specialist programs that would train a select few.
After all, suppliers are able to successfully monitor their brand
usage by independent tour wholesalers, whom they trust with usage
of their trademarked images and logos within brochures.
At the elite level, agents could receive brand extension
compliance training, with the expectation that they will be
governed by supplier controls once they complete their
The supplier can then have positive brand exposure at the
neighborhood level in strategic markets, and agents can become more
effective at presenting and selling supplier products.
I think agents would compete to attain this elite status and
training. They know that both agents and suppliers win with this
expansion and redefinition of the agency role. Suppliers get
accurate brand expansion into local markets, and agents get the
benefit of having consumers more closely identifying them with
major consumer brands.
For more on this topic, see related articles:
• Disney tells agent: You're not so special
• Disney issues open letter on specialist