In a decision that could ramify throughout the travel industry, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises have concluded that agents will be recruited to play an integral role in their Internet-based consumer booking engine when it gets rolling in December.

Just when the phrase "it's just a click away" has become the mantra of Internet entrepreneurs selling everything from comic books to caviar, the cruise lines said they will pay retailers to complete Web-based bookings because dealing directly with consumers proved inefficient and time consuming in trial runs.

One small step for agents, one giant step for agent-kind.

Although many of the details remain to be worked out, the imposition of the trade between the consumer and the vendor in the virtual world sharply underlines the invaluable role the travel agent plays in the traditional sales equation.

After all, implicit in the move by the cruise companies is the bottom-line recognition that it is better business to pay agents to service Internet bookings than to waste time and effort doing it themselves.

Cruise lines, tour operators and, yes, the airlines should take notice. While retailers have long contended that they provide value-added service to their clients, it is sometimes forgotten that they provide equal -- and bankable -- value to suppliers.

Seller beware

The Independent Travel Agent Support Network says it will pay owners selling small shops substantially more than their businesses are worth on the open market.

The catch: No money up front and a 10-year payout based on commissions earned. A good deal? It depends whom you ask.

Our advice to owners bent on leaving the business is simple. Consult a good travel attorney before making a move.

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