Spreading the word

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bit more than 10 days ago, I set out to find ways in which agents have prepared for another commission cut.

I had completed four interviews when one subject called me back to tell me American had just done the deed.

Another interviewee also called, but to ask: "You knew all along, didn't you?"

I didn't, but that fortuitous bit of timing gave us a little head start on covering our hottest story of the year to date. Resulting stories appeared on this Web site.

In this space, I turn to a key problem that is highlighted by commission cuts, the trade's inability -- so far -- to impress upon the general public to a sufficient degree the value of using a travel agent.

Alan Hale, chief executive of Adventure Travel in Birmingham, Ala., put it this way: "Consumers have a long way to go to learn the value of the agent. They don't get it that it's dumb to spend four hours on the Net to get a good fare."

He faulted trade groups for failing to communicate to the public that the consumer who does not use an agent is a "nincompoop." Conveying the message would take a lot of money -- Alan estimates $20 million -- and a heck of a lot of cooperation among thousands of agents because each would have to buy into the idea, literally, in order for that kind of money to be available.

That would be ideal, and kudos to any trade group that has those powers of persuasion and organizes such an effort.

Meanwhile, in a less-than-ideal world, ASTA -- well aware of the issue -- attempts to make relatively modest amounts of money do the work of more.

Just before American announced its cut, I asked ASTA president Richard Copland to list the biggest issues facing agents today, and one answer was "consumer awareness."

He said, "Members want ASTA to get the message across to the public about the value of the travel agent."

This summer, ASTA launched its largest cooperative effort ever -- with the six Carnival Corp. brands -- to carry to the public its slogan, "Without a travel agent, you are on your own."

The ad campaign, encompassing 24 ads in USA Today over a six-month period, is valued at nearly $1 million.

It directs readers to the Web to register for free cruises and to find ASTA agents by ZIP code. Richard said the response has been so good that ASTA has had inquiries from other cruise lines that might like to get involved.

And, back home in Alabama, Alan said he would "do my part" to carry the message that travelers are not too bright if they don't use an agent.

I figure the rest of us have to do our part, too, don't you agree?

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