Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

OK, the headline was just to get your attention. Jenn Lee doesn't hate independent contractors. She hates the term "independent contractor."


Before signing on to her current role as vice president of sales and marketing for Travel Planners International (TPI), Lee had been in sales and marketing in several industries, from real estate to electronic components.

When her local hardware store, which had been open for 40 years, went out of business about nine years ago, she was shocked.

"I thought it was ridiculous," she told me recently. "It was all because [the owner] had no idea how to compete with Home Depot or Lowe's."

She wished she'd had the opportunity to speak with the owner before he shut his doors.

"There was no reason he should have closed," she said. "He just didn't know how to pivot. He didn't know how to market himself in a changing world. And I realized a lot of small-business people who were facing new types of competition didn't know what to do, either."

So she decided to strike out on her own and become an independent consultant for small businesses. She spoke at a number of entrepreneurial events and was hired by TPI to emcee a conference.

She was stunned by the people she met. "I was, like, 'Oh, my God!' This is such an incredible industry," she said. "Amazing people. You just can't find a better group of human beings."

But she saw a disconnect between the quality of those people and the language used to describe them: "The industry treats travel agent business owners as if they were numbers."

Or, more precisely, letters: "They call them ICs, independent contractors. And I said, no, they're not ICs. They're small-business owners. They own a small travel agency. They just happen to do it from their home."

She's less concerned about consumers' image of travel agents than she is about travel agents' image of themselves.

"I was thinking these poor small-business owners don't even look at themselves as being business owners. They're not ICs. They're not even primarily travel agents. You may make your living as a travel agent, but first and foremost, you're a small-business owner.

"And, especially, you're not a contractor. Contractors hang drywall. You're not a temporary, part-time worker hired to fulfill a contract."

The term independent contractor may have derived from a legal description, but she doesn't feel that should be the overriding consideration.

"If someone thinks they're a contractor, it makes them feel reliant on others to be successful," she said. "In a negative way, not a positive way."

Lee felt TPI itself needed rebranding.

"Right away, I hated the word 'host.' Absolutely hated it. We're a sales, marketing and support agency for small-business owners. A host sounds like something you might need if you're new in the business. But [many groups that work with home-based agents] have people who have been in the business for a long time. They may need support, but they certainly don't need a host."

And while she's on her soapbox about labels, there was one more thing on her mind: "I do like the word travel agent. I think we're getting too fancy with 'travel adviser.' Why are we screwing this up? The public is already confused, so why confuse them more by changing the title of who we are?

"If you're at a party and you tell someone you're a small-business owner and they ask what sort of business, and you say, 'I own a small travel agency,' they'll understand. In fact, they're likely to say, 'Oh, you do? I didn't even know those were still around.' And then all you have to say is, 'Yes, it's booming. Everyone is working with travel agents now. Tell me about your travel needs.'"

Do the words that describe professions actually matter as much as Lee thinks? Consider this: In 1789, when George Washington was sworn in as the country's first president, the topic of what to call the head of state was still controversial. John Adams initially proposed "excellency," then, upon further consideration, thought that was too modest, and lobbied for "highness."

But the prevailing sentiment was that "president," which was merely descriptive of someone who presides, was more in keeping with the anti-royalist sentiment that helped fuel the Revolution.

Although the term president was first used by the U.S. to refer to its head of state, today it is a common and desired title for leaders of republics (and not a few dictators). The accomplishments of U.S. presidents elevated the label considerably.

It's fairly clear that for the world at large, opinions about titles rise or decline in relation to performance. The title "Dear Leader" has not really caught on outside of North Korea.

Ultimately, it might not matter much whether one calls oneself a travel agent, traveler adviser, travel counselor or travel professional. If success is the measure, a case could be made for any of them.

But Lee is right to differentiate between self image and public image. If you're selling travel, I'm not sure you can equate independent contractor and small-business owner. I'm in Lee's corner on this one.


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