I have an industry friend who
shrugs a lot. Always shrugs before he speaks. In 2003, I showed him
statistics that seemed to demonstrate that travel agents were more
attractive than any other channel: Their clients take more trips
each year, travel longer per trip and spend more money each day
that they travel.
Yet, I continued,
suppliers were at that time pumping a disproportionate percentage
of marketing dollars into the third-party online channel, a channel
that was both smaller in dollar volume and provided considerably
My friend looked
over the data and shrugged, the shrug adding an element of finality
to what he was about to say: The climate of opinion is against
He was right. But
at ASTAs World Travel Congress this year, I sensed a shift toward
groused. They wished there were more agents walking the aisles and
pronounced the trade show appointment system a flop. But if these
disappointments seemed keen to suppliers, it was because they were
unusually energized to do business with agents.
There are many
reasons why I think the climate is changing.
suppliers (legacy airlines excepted) arent distracted by cash flow
concerns on a daily basis, as they were in 2003. Even back then,
suppliers might well have known that giving support to agents was
in their long-term interest, but to survive, they needed to get rid
of distressed inventory immediately, and the Web helped them do
Also, the ultimate
size of the Web channel was unknown. It was growing fast, and at
the same time, consumer publications were making unkind linkages
between travel agencies and dinosaurs.
If one had to make
a bet on the future, online seemed a very reasonable
This year, both
online and off-line distribution channels seem to have reached the
inflection point -- a term borrowed from calculus and introduced to
me by Frank Camacho, Hertz vice president of marketing. In this
case, the inflection point is reached because the online growth
curve and the agency declination curve are leveling off.
This suggestion of
channel stability, aided by supplier financial stability, makes
decisions about which channels to support much more rational -- its
safer now to presume that current sales levels in each channel may
not change much over the next few years.
supporting climate change came during an interview with Rob
Hibbard, vice president of rental development for Enterprise
I asked Hibbard if
his decision this year to work with agents for the first time was
due to changes he noticed in the evolution of agencies, or if the
timing was driven by developments within Enterprise.
He seemed puzzled
by the question. Having looked at the data on travel agencies, he
said, it had seemed obvious to Enterprise that it should work with
We just werent at
the point in our infrastructure where we could handle them before
now, he said.
with Hibbard led me to believe that he hadnt really been exposed to
the former negative climate of opinion about agents.
He looked at data
in the here and now -- the profiles of agency clients, the various
distribution channel trend lines -- and made what seemed to be an
obvious, straightforward business decision to use agency
One final factor
that may be at play in the warming of opinion in favor of travel
agents: ASTA President Kathy Sudeikis.
smart and funny, a public relations dream. When considering how
much effect one person like her can have, consider that it is
believed a single butterfly flapping its wings can contribute to
both subtle and powerful changes in weather patterns. Even climate