here is no greater pejorative to hurl at a travel agent than the epithet "order-taker." Suppliers give commissions happily to those who "sell" their products, and grudgingly to those whose desks just happened to be at the right place at the right time when a buyer came along and decided to buy.

You might well ask if a supplier truly cares about the skill level of an agent who sends in a deposit check, as long as the deposit check gets sent in. It has been my observation that the check gets cashed, regardless.

Don't get me wrong -- I certainly understand why suppliers support "sellers." Traditionally, they're the ones who provide reliable volume, and they unquestionably merit a supplier's attention in the form of training, co-op dollars, fam trips and overrides.

On the other hand, the order-takers provide the equivalent of found money -- found money with a higher margin, since it arrived without an investment in training, co-op dollars, fam trips and overrides. And if you look at the margins on which some suppliers operate -- particularly tour operators -- I'd guess that in some cases, "sellers" provide the operating cash flow and "order-takers" the whole of the profit.

In the online paradigm, the reverse is likely true. Online agencies have built highly sophisticated tools that enable them to be the absolute kings of the order-takers.

There was a lot of truth in the common wisdom that traditional agents who were mere order-takers would be put out of business by online agencies -- not because online companies had perfected the art of selling, but because they had perfected the art of order-taking.

In fact, online agencies have done such a good job that they don't even have to take the order -- the customer fills out the order form. (Back when Expedia used the slogan, "Be your own travel agent," I thought it wise not to add the tagline, "... and we'll get the commission.")

I'm not intending to belittle the success of the online agencies. Actually, my intention is to acknowledge the importance of the practice of order-taking. In fact, its importance is increasing.

Airlines eliminated base commissions because they were so certain that orders came to travel agents regardless of an agency's ability to sell. Airlines were confident that people were flying because they wanted to, not because they were sold on the idea.

As it turned out, they were, to a large extent, correct. But then, for reasons still mystifying, airlines spent large sums directing passengers away from the no-cost agency channel and into their costly call centers, while simultaneously spending small fortunes marketing through the online travel agencies, which, at that time, were little more than order-takers that still received commissions. (These are the same airlines that are now in such poor financial health. Go figure.)

The reality is that travel articles, word-of-mouth, advertising and marketing all drive a portion of every agency's business. It's equally true that a part of every travel seller's success can be attributed to putting him or her in the path of someone ready to buy.

It's also equally true that an increasing, not decreasing, number of travelers know where and when they want to travel and seek only to come across an efficient outlet that enables them to complete the transaction.

That's the real online revolution. The generation now coming of age is empowered with a tremendous amount of information and is increasingly conscious of the sophisticated techniques used to market to them.

It doesn't mean they're immune to your consultation, but they nonetheless herald the day when travel sellers will happily seek to be the upcoming generation's order-taker of choice.

By all means, sharpen your selling skills, but make sure your order-taking technology is every bit as sharp.


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