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 business.

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 sell.

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 training.

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.

Get More!
For more on this topic, see related articles:
Disney tells agent: You're not so special
Disney issues open letter on specialist rules

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