Revolutions in industries follow unpredictable patterns. Sometimes, as in the case of computer word processing versus typewriters, the victory is complete, and an old model disappears. At other times (and a bit closer to home), victories are partial, such as when the online channel arrived on the travel distribution scene.
At that time, brick-and-mortar travel agencies were labeled "endangered" by the optimists and "dinosaurs" by everyone else, but they nonetheless evolved toward service-oriented models that could outperform purely digital competitors in many circumstances, while simultaneously embracing elements of Web marketing for their own use.
I have received a lot of correspondence from YTB "referring travel agents" over the past year, either directly or through comments sent in reaction to Travel Weekly's YTB-related articles. From these comments, it's pretty clear that many RTAs see themselves as members of a revolutionary force. In fact, after we published articles reporting that the California attorney general and several former RTAs in Illinois had filed suits alleging that YTB runs a pyramid scheme, we received comments from RTAs stating that the lawsuits must be the work of traditional agents who feel threatened by YTB's superior business model.
Traditional agents, incidentally, wrote to cheer the news of the lawsuits, often citing a belief that YTB's agents were less than professional.
The actual contents of the comments sent to us were quite colorful. A small sampling of the verbs and nouns (and nouns used as verbs) includes "lazyass," "parasites," "pushy," "jealous," "stupid," "cowards," "misleading and malicious," "idiots" and "wannabes."
I will confess that "misleading and malicious" was aimed at Travel Weekly, not at either YTB or traditional agents. (As was "lazy," though, I'm proud to point out, not "lazyass.")
What is going on here that leads to such vituperation? Typically, businesspeople can feign indifference to competitors, respect them or even cooperate when it serves mutual interests. Aggressive responses are certainly not uncommon, but they usually stop short of name-calling. In fact, talk usually only gets this heated in a truly dire, fight-to-the-death situation.
Yet based on raw numbers provided to Travel Weekly for our 2008 Power List survey (where YTB ranks No. 26) or in the stats provided by California Attorney General Edmund Brown Jr., YTB represents a very small percentage of overall travel sales. It in no way represents the type of threat to traditional agents that, for example, online sales did.
What I think we are observing are consequences of annoyance. YTB agents, echoing sentiments once voiced by online pioneers, say that just as mammals inherited the earth from dinosaurs, RTAs will emerge as masters of the travel planet.
And though YTB agents sell so little travel, they seem to show up everywhere with their message of impending domination, a message conveyed in some cases directly to traditional travel agents, sometimes directly to their clients. Some traditional travel agents react as if it is cockroaches who are threatening to inherit the earth.
Another irritation to traditional agents is that YTB agents often speak the language of multilevel marketing, with its echoes of evangelical preaching and personal salvation, rather than the jargon of the travel industry. This alone creates an enormous cultural gap between RTAs and other agents.
For all the arrogance demonstrated by the early online travel community, it did do its homework, quickly learning to speak travelese and demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of how the industry works.
YTB is not the first multilevel marketing company to try to penetrate travel, but it is by far the most successful. If suppressed in Illinois and California, other states will likely follow suit, and YTB might be no more in the U.S. For RTAs, it is indeed a fight to the death.
Still, I doubt very much that a successful effort against YTB would spell the end of multilevel marketing efforts in travel, nor, in a broader sense, will it end efforts to bestow "travel agent" status on consumers, enabling them to book their own travel and partake of the perks (such as they are) of working in the industry.
The fact of the matter is that consumers already book a good deal of their own travel anyway, so it's not hard work to convince them that they should be rewarded, as travel agents are.
(Expedia used to have a slogan, "Be your own travel agent." I wondered how long it would be before its customers realized that the unstated end of that sentence was "and we'll collect the commission.")
I suspect that if YTB is brought down by these suits, the next version of consumer-as-travel-agent will a) avoid the specific mistakes YTB made that left it vulnerable to legal challenges and b) remove the elements that made it so annoying to the rest of the industry.
In fact, the next version might be spawned by an existing "traditional" travel agency.
Stranger things have happened. It wasn't that long ago that those selling timeshare property were synonymous with "obnoxious." They replaced insurance salespeople as the butt of jokes and the ones you'd least want to be stuck with in an elevator.
But today "vacation sales" (i.e., timeshares) are marketed by most mainstream hospitality companies, from Marriott to Disney.
The concept of a "referring travel agent" is not in itself toxic to the travel distribution system, and I'm guessing it's an attractive enough concept that it could fly without being wrapped in a multilevel marketing formula. The YTB lawsuits might eventually spell the end of YTB, but they cannot suppress consumers' belief that they, too, can book travel and be rewarded for it.
If YTB is dismantled, the only question will be: What will replace it -- an existing entity or a new one?
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].