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
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
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
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
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
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
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.