he ship didn't stop at any ports. I boarded in Los Angeles and got off four days later in Acapulco, Mexico. Though it was a luxury liner, I never visited the spa, didn't swim in the pool, never relaxed on deck with a book. Still, I came back refreshed, more so than from any trip in recent memory.

I was aboard the Crystal Symphony for Crystal's 12th annual travel agent sales and achievement meetings attended by members of its elite President's Club. What was refreshing was being in an environment of mutual respect between travel agents and suppliers.

The agents aboard the Symphony received the royal treatment, with lavish meals and special entertainment, and in return they filled a small theater for hours of daily training -- tempting as the amenities aboard the ship were, there were few truants.

I had thought this type of event, where the red carpet was rolled out for travel agents, had disappeared from the travel industry. It does still exist -- but only for agents on the leading edge.

Crystal's functions, beginning with a gala dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel and continuing through a shipboard dinner-dance on the final night, were not open events for the agency community at large. Only 90 agencies out of more than 26,000 were invited, and each of these agencies had produced more than $350,000 worth of sales for Crystal.

I spoke with many of the invitees. Some were from one-person shops, some were from large agencies. What they had in common was a passion for this product and the ability to convey this passion to their clients.

During an open forum with Crystal's president, Gregg Michel, the agents spoke knowledgeably about the staterooms and amenities, and made suggestions about everything from pricing strategies to whether passengers should get free bottled water.

Michel listened attentively, and I could see his staff members making notes. Following the forum, I sat down for lunch with him, vice president of sales David Morris and vice president for group sales Eric Graves to try to get a better understanding of their strategy for working with travel agents.

"Ninety-nine percent of our bookings come in through travel agents, and about 14% of all our bookings are brought in by just these 90 agencies," Morris said. "We want to reward them."

And they reward them with more than just a four-day cruise. Anyone who sells $350,000 in Crystal cruises can join the President's Club and also get a 15% commission. Sell $450,000 in Crystal Cruises, and the ante is raised to 16%.

And their top level -- 650K or above in sales -- receives 17%. Pretty soon you begin to understand that these agents have their own interests, as well as Crystal's, in mind. A Crystal cruise is not an inexpensive product.

The continuing education is an important component of the President's Club, Michel added. "We have a sophisticated, complex product. This is not a commodity for the masses. We need to have relationships with the agencies that sell Crystal. If we commit to each other, we have a partnership."

I asked what was the cruise line's greatest challenge in getting agents focused on selling Crystal. "Convincing agents that they can, in fact, sell a cruise at this price point," Michel said. "Some are simply uncomfortable selling premium brands. They don't believe in themselves."

"But if they want a relationship with us and are willing to make a commitment, we can help," Morris added.

Agents might feel good listening to this type of talk, but it's important to remember that, while Crystal's executives are willing to make the effort to partner with any interested agent, at the end of the day, they're only interested in rewarding agents who prove they can deliver: roughly one agency out of every 300.

Over the past few years, I've heard many agents tell me they long for the good old days when just showing up at an ASTA World Travel Congress meant suppliers would lavish attention on them. Those days are gone. But respect for travel agents isn't.

It's just reserved for agents who get to know their preferred supplier's lines thoroughly, and strongly believe in the value of what they're doing: selling products they trust to people they care about.


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