We may all, at this point, be suffering from a bit of YTB fatigue. This multilevel marketing company, which sells "referring travel agent" status and then incentivizes these RTAs to recruit more RTAs, is the most prominent of the companies to recently be labeled a "card mill" by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

As a result, this week YTB will lose its ability to sell RCCL products, a move welcomed by most traditional agency groups.

I wrote in this space two weeks ago that the concept of referrals was hardly a new phenomenon and that the entry of so many people selling travel was not necessarily a bad thing for an industry that has for years struggled to attract new talent.

I also said that several suppliers had told me they had no problem with YTB, but none would go on the record for fear of alienating traditional agents.

Perhaps I'm suffering from YTB fatigue more than most because the e-mail reaction to that column continues. But what I learned from those who wrote was enlightening and clarifying, if not always in the manner the writers intended.

The mail ran 4-to-3 in favor of YTB (e-mails from travel sellers supporting YTB were, with only two exceptions, from YTB agents). Supplier mail was split more evenly, but still no supplier who wrote supporting YTB was willing to go on the record.

What struck me about much of the e-mail from YTB members was its almost religious quality. While I was aware of a quasi-evangelical aspect to the recruitment component of YTB, some letters stated belief in a dogma holding that traditional travel agents are damned. Conversely, it also holds that YTB members are on the Internet-enabled pathway to heaven.

Not surprisingly, this doesn't sit well with much of the travel-selling orthodoxy, which views the YTB philosophy as not just uninformed but misleading and more than a little annoying.

Because of YTB's dual approach of selling travel and recruiting members, its sales and proselytizing efforts have the potential to convert business away from traditional agents while simultaneously promoting what appears to be a sales model that fails to meet established professional standards. Traditional agents and suppliers provided me with many vivid examples of obnoxious behavior by YTB referring agents, from flushing a toilet while talking to a supplier to crashing an agency's cruise night activities to poach clients.

And indeed, some e-mail from YTB agents -- fan mail, by some definitions -- was disturbing.

These agents made sweeping assumptions unsupported by facts, made unwarranted attacks on traditional agents and demonstrated a level of naivete about business that saddened me.

But I also received mail from YTB members who did not see their participation in that organization in apocalyptic terms.

Perhaps they were in the rest room when the Kool-Aid was passed around, but they didn't speak, as one travel agent put it, in the "Amway meets Rev. Moon" language common to multilevel marketing, or MLM, companies. They simply indicated that YTB provided a business platform that worked for them.

Kelly Sinkey of Pura Vida Travel in Fairbanks, Alaska, wrote: "[My] family owned a travel agency that went bankrupt in the '90s. It was a terrible, life-changing event. YTB presents a low-cost, low-risk opportunity to invest in an industry that has room to grow and potential for success. I agree that if RCCL has concerns about legitimate professionals, they can raise the bar for whom they'll do business with. But within YTB are folks who had brick-and-mortar agencies and brought their clients with them."

Whether or not the debate on both sides is ever stripped of its good-vs.-evil trappings, it may, if history is an indicator, play out something like this: Since successful MLMs don't remain MLMs forever (adding a new foundation level to the pyramid becomes increasingly difficult), they very often continue in their industry but drop the pyramid model.

Should this happen, YTB will need to identify and retain only its 1,000 best agents -- less than 1% of its membership -- to instantly become as large as or larger than today's biggest agent consortium.

And perhaps at that point the gates of heaven -- or better yet, the doors to the executive suite at RCCL -- will open to receive them.


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