I had back-to-back meetings with two travel suppliers last week. One is new, small and foreign-based. The other is midsize, run by the second generation of a well-known industry family and headquartered in the U.S.
They had one thing in common: Although both work with travel retailers, neither sees the traditional commission-based relationship as a satisfying way forward.
Agents have been diversifying revenue streams beyond commissions for well over a decade, charging service fees to clients or, when scale makes sense, embracing merchant models that enable them to buy in bulk and mark up for profit.
But I think my recent conversations might have tapped into a nascent shift in thinking toward, at one end, a more sophisticated, mutually beneficial and strategic agent-supplier paradigm or, on the other, arrangements that reduce engagement between parties.
"I have no interest in passive relationships," Sven Lindblad, president and founder of Lindblad Expeditions, told me over lunch Jan. 13. "It's not that I'm anti-travel agent, not at all. But I want to have conversations with people who get beyond 'these are the products' and 'how do we sell?'"
What Lindblad wants, he said, are models "that denote a business partnership, where you really understand each other's aspirational goals and really work on strategy. Where there are shared responsibilities and financial incentives matched to metrics that are developed collectively."
This would be a fundamental redefinition of the agent-supplier paradigm toward one that is both less paternalistic and potentially more risky than existing models.
His thinking is influenced, he said, by his partnership with National Geographic. Five of Lindblad's ships are co-branded as National Geographic Expeditions, and the relationship goes far deeper than co-marketing. They share, he noted, similar passions for the planet's stewardship, and each provides complementary skills and expertise.
"National Geographic is an organization that communicates about the world and all that's in it," he said. "We're in the business of taking people though that world. It seemed to me to be the most natural and sensible partnership. We just celebrated our 10th anniversary, and I feel as much a representative of National Geographic as my own company. We meet regularly, looking at how we add value to what we're doing in terms of content and exposure. We really give a shit about each other. I wake up wondering what they're doing -- that's what a partnership really is."
And that's the type of partnership he would like to have with like-minded travel agents.
"I mean, we're all struggling with what people care about and how you remain relevant," he said. "Together, we could tap into what people are interested in and want from travel. I believe a vibrant relationship with travel agents could make everybody's opportunities more powerful and is really appealing."
Finding the right agent partners, however, could be a challenge.
"I get it that 99% of travel agents wouldn't be interested in what we do, or that this wouldn't be a valuable business proposition from their perspective," Lindblad said. "But I want our team to work with individual agents and build value -- no more or less than that. If I found a core group of five to 10 people who share the interest, then let's go away for a weekend, somewhere nice and fun, and have a conversation about what this might look like: what we do, what they do and how we could strategically build from there."
What I found perhaps most interesting is that Lindblad claims his interest in expanding relationships with travel advisers is not driven by need.
"We're running 94% occupancy, which is pretty stunning," he said. "This has to do with building a future that creates greater opportunity. It would take a lot of commitment on our part, as well as time and effort, but nothing of great consequence can happen overnight."
He is willing, he said, to put his assets on the table to enhance the opportunity.
"This kind of relationship has to include our staff on the business side, and I would like to make our naturalists, historians, the superstar National Geographic photographers available," he said. "Our partnership with National Geographic could be leveraged infinitely by travel agents. I can envision meetings where we would discuss the future, what trends we're seeing, what the clientele is interested in."
I sensed that perhaps the greatest asset agents bring to the table is another perspective on travelers.
"You want to know who really owns the company? It's our passengers," he said. "What matters to them -- that's the primary lens for beginning any conversation. They're God. How are we going to support God? If not for their appreciation for what we do, it doesn't matter. If you lose sight of that, what's the point?"
Lindblad asked me to include his email address if I wrote about our conversation, saying he wanted agents to contact him directly.
"Something on this level, I'm going to take a deep, personal interest in," he said. "I'm not just going to hand it off."
You can contact him directly at [email protected].
After Lindblad and I finished lunch in the West Village, I had just enough time to walk east to Chinatown for my next appointment, with Daisann McLane, director of Little Adventures in Hong Kong.
A mutual friend thought I'd find her business interesting and suggested we meet. Daisann also has a National Geographic connection: She's a contributing editor to Nat Geo Traveler.
Her first trip to Asia was to accompany the rock band Cheap Trick on a three-week tour of Japan for Rolling Stone magazine (yes, she was live at Budokan). Growing more interested in writing about food than music, she went to Hong Kong to learn Cantonese and more about Chinese cuisine so she could order knowledgably in New York's Chinatown.
She succeeded too well; she came to realize she didn't want to eat what she now regards as the inferior, inauthentic food served in the U.S. She began taking visitors on tours through the warrens of Hong Kong's little-known but outstanding food shacks, and in five years she has built an intimate operation that employs local multilingual restaurant critics and cooks as guides.
Her knowledge of Cantonese food is dizzying, and as we sampled four dishes at a place she regards as one of Chinatown's more promising restaurants, she could not contain her dismay and disdain for three of the four. "This is not right," she said after unwrapping a lotus leaf and poking through some glutinous rice to find half a sausage link in her lo mai gai.
She provided a fascinating exposition about why American Chinese restaurants are so bad. In a nutshell, the die was cast by laborers who had been brought over to work on the railroads in the 19th century. Their lack of culinary skill did not discourage them from opening the first Chinese restaurants.
Celebrity chefs, well-known food critics and CEOs of large global banks have paid $115 per hour to sit on uncomfortable stools in crowded food shacks in Hong Kong with her staff and learn about the high and low art of Chinese cuisine. It is a type of "authentic" experience that is exceedingly hard to arrange with just a guidebook.
She knows the language, which restaurants to visit and what to order (extremely important, she noted). Her commentary provides a deep and entertaining understanding of the flavors, virtues and history of what exactly is being eaten.
Does she, I asked, pay commissions to travel agents?
"I've worked very quietly with some high-end, experiential agents," she said.
I asked again, does she pay commissions?
"I don't get into that," she said. "I let the agent mark it up if they want to."
The adjacency and juxtaposition of my conversations with Lindblad and McLane is, I think, instructive.
Lindblad's mature, successful enterprise doesn't need more agent business, but he wants deeper connections to agents.
McLane, her business in a very early stage of development, doesn't see a need to court agents. If they want to work with her, fine, but it's up to them to figure out how to make money doing so.
In bygone days, agents would bypass McLane and simply find a vendor who paid commissions, and that would be that. But in a world that's so connected that word of mouth alone will bring someone like McLane all the business she can handle, can travel retailers afford to ignore such a resource? Lindblad said it: The traveler is God, and serving God well is good business.
After the retail model disruptions caused by the related rise of online distribution, service fees and home agencies subsided, agency-supplier relations have, by and large, remained little changed. We're about due for a revolution in the paradigm. I wonder if it could concurrently take the forms of deeper engagement with companies like Lindblad and the loosest of ties with intriguing niche startups like Little Adventures in Hong Kong.
CORRECTION: Daisann McLane is a contributing editor to Nat Geo Traveler. In an earlier version of this column, McLane was incorrectly called a former contributing editor.