his month's issue of Conde Nast Traveler is not graced by seductive photography of one of the earth's most beautiful locales. Instead, readers are beckoned by simple text: "112 Best Travel Agents ... Now That We Need Them More Than Ever."

This, in my humble opinion, is a big deal. For a consumer magazine sold at newsstands, a lot of variable revenue hangs on the decision of what to put on its cover, and CNT decided that consumer interest in travel agents will sell more magazines this month than any enticing destination they could feature.

"I work at a magazine where there's much discussion about virtually everything," CNT's editor in chief, Tom Wallace, told me. "There was a lot of discussion about this. But the more I heard, the more strongly I felt this should be the cover. I'm glad we did it."

Despite the magazine's penchant for putting high-quality imagery on its cover ("We have lots of gorgeous photography to choose from"), Wallace believes that Conde Nast Traveler's role as an information source is every bit as important to its readers as its entertainment value.

"The travel agent story falls into the category of important information for intelligent consumers of travel. We think this will be very valuable."

What were the other contenders for the cover? "There was a story on Bulgaria that I thought was wonderful -- it's been a while since I've read a story that has more titillated me. The history, culture, beautiful architecture, great food, beaches, mountains. ..."

There also was an article about the role of art exhibitions in Las Vegas that was a candidate, as was "a very nice piece about adventure travel to Suriname." But in the end, the travel agent story won out.

"We knew we were cutting against the grain" by featuring travel agents so prominently, Wallace said.

"This is counter to the 'received wisdom' about the roles of agents, and we could have put it on the inside. But we wouldn't have made the point we want to make without the decibel level that the cover provides."

And the point they want to make is this: "We don't dispute that travel on line is growing. But even the best of the online travel operations will tell you that there's a limit to what they can do. We give examples that show [those limitations], and examples of what a reputable travel agent can do for a consumer."

A recurrent theme throughout the article is the importance of relationships -- both supplier relationships and consumer relationships -- to travel agents.

"If [an agent is] savvy about how the system works and has personal contacts, they can be used on behalf of clients with whom they have a continuing relationship," Wallace said. "On line, there isn't much loyalty. If you get the lowest fare on Travelocity one time, fine, but if you find it at Expedia next time, you'll go there.

"As we prepared the article, we realized that for our readers, and the type of travel that they do, they're better off with a trusted travel agent. An agent who has a long-term relationship with you, knows you, your family and your preferences is motivated to use supplier relationships for you."

As far as newsstand sales go, Wallace won't know how this issue will compare with more traditional covers until Friday.

"Will it be successful? We certainly hope so," he said.

"All covers are a gamble. With this one, I think the odds are pretty good."


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