f you're keeping a list of ideas whose time has not yet arrived, you can add distributorships for cruise lines, but you might want to use pencil instead of ink.

SeaDream Yacht Club gave up on the idea of selling cruises at net rates through "distributors," but the company stopped far short of saying it was a bad idea, attributing the demise of its program to bad timing.

A statement by SeaDream chief executive officer Larry Pimentel said the firm's marketing plan "proved difficult to communicate in an unstable marketplace."

Perhaps this wasn't the time to ask travel retailers to make a nonrefundable, upfront payment of $2,000 to be a distributor for a luxury cruise line with a total inventory of 110 staterooms.

Maybe this idea needs to be tried first with a mass-market or commodity product rather than a high-end, niche product. Maybe $2,000 is just too much.

Or maybe today's marketplace is a little unstable for something radically new.

Whatever you think of this idea, we believe SeaDream deserves credit for trying something different from the familiar agency arrangement -- and credit again for recognizing the industry wasn't ready.

But it would be a mistake to believe this idea is dead, or that technology is the only thing driving the evolution of travel distribution.

Someday, maybe sooner than we think, somebody is going to roll out something very similar to SeaDream's plan, and make it work for the supplier, for the retailer and for the customer.

And it will be an interesting thing to watch.

• • •

Feeling for a pulse

n the bad old days, you could just go to the Air Traffic Conference and IATA (now ARC and Iatan) and ask how many travel agents there are, and they would tell you, and then you could go to lunch. If there were any travel agents out there who weren't accredited by ATC and IATA, or both, they probably weren't "real" travel agents.

Well, the bad old days are gone, and these days it's impossible to know how many travel agents there are. There are many different kinds, and not every type is being counted.

ARC's monthly report on airline sales by its accredited locations was never meant to take the full measure of travel agency performance, but it is widely used as a rough guide, and recently it has served as an indicator of declining fortunes.

If we learn from the ARC report that an agency gave up its ARC accreditation or consolidated three branches into two, we learn something about quantity -- at least from the airlines' perspective -- but nothing about quality, efficiency or profitability.

Taking one's pulse is a difficult task for some, and it remains a continuing challenge for this industry.

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI