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 less yield.

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 them.

He was right. But at ASTAs World Travel Congress this year, I sensed a shift toward climatic warming.

True, suppliers 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.

First, most 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 that.

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 bet.

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.

More evidence supporting climate change came during an interview with Rob Hibbard, vice president of rental development for Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

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 them.

We just werent at the point in our infrastructure where we could handle them before now, he said.

Further discussion 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 distribution.

One final factor that may be at play in the warming of opinion in favor of travel agents: ASTA President Kathy Sudeikis. 

Shes charming, 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 patterns.


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