Arnie WeissmannDid it make you angry? Were you among the 600-plus who wrote a comment beneath it? Or among the 1,500 who signed a petition asking for a retraction? 

Are you a supplier who saw an opportunity to show solidarity with travel agents by sending out a statement condemning it? Could you not stop talking about it in the office, around the dinner table, on Facebook, on Twitter?

Even to clients?

OK, it's two weeks later, we've cooled down (a bit), and it's time to reassess the impact of the article titled "9 Things Travel Agents Won't Tell You." 

Yes, it was filled with mischaracterizations and bad advice, but it should be acknowledged that its biggest impact was not the damage it did to the good name of travel agents. This was not President Obama asking national media, "When was the last time someone used a travel agent?" This was a heretofore little-known freelance writer. In Woman's Day. Online version.

Of course, the president's comment two years ago -- or rather, the reaction to it -- was one of the best things to happen to travel agents since the turn of the century. Suddenly articles were appearing in national media outlets everywhere reporting that travel agents were alive and well, saving clients' money, getting them upgrades and providing lifetime memories.

Our takeaway from that incident and its aftermath was that an implied or direct criticism can be turned into a positive. So, yes, the article was outrageous, but I sensed that, mixed in with the outrage, some saw as much opportunity as threat.

Good for ASTA for leveraging the story to get a positive portrayal of agents in a future issue of Woman's Day, but there may be an even bigger opportunity: How can we harness the passion and energy that agents clearly felt after reading the article, and turn it into something more meaningful? There are issues that present far greater threats than that article that do not seem to get our collective juices flowing.

Front and center among them is the aging of travel agents, as verified in a recent ASTA survey and long on the lips of many a supplier. Add to that the relatively small number of younger people choosing a career in travel, and you've got a problem that calls into question the very viability of agents as a distribution channel.

This is the industry's equivalent of climate change, occurring slowly and in increments but with potentially dire consequences. Perhaps, as with climate change, it's hard to motivate people to act because, even after the problem has been identified, there can be an accompanying sense of inevitability and helplessness. One can't go to and demand that the trend halt.

But there are a number of people and groups who are trying to rally awareness, planning and action around the issue, including ASTA's Young Professionals Society, Travel Leaders and a number of suppliers. This seems like ASTA's natural turf, and the Society needs to lead not only as a clearinghouse and coordinator but, perhaps most importantly, by keeping up energy levels around this issue. There may be nothing more important to the survival of agents as a profession.

And it would also be great to harness some agent anger and energy for the political process. It might have made a difference to Congress if 1,500-plus agents had signed a petition against the truly outrageous overreactions codified in H.R. 313, the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2013, which the House passed last week. This bill could give travel agencies that service government accounts a 30% haircut, despite evidence that government workers and their agents are already diligently watching costs and spending far less than their private-sector counterparts.

And finally, I'd like to see some agent energy channeled toward institutionalizing professionalism. The article was wrong to tar agents with a broad brush, but we all know that there are a few shortsighted agents out there who might actually do some of the things the author suggests are business as usual. Fortunately, these unsophisticated and ethically challenged agents are few and far between, but without set standards, and perhaps official certification, the agent community will be open to charges of acting in its own, rather than a client's, interest.

It's the day after Woman's Day. Let's make the most of it.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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