Arnie WeissmannYou may have noticed that the consumer press has rediscovered travel agents. The flood of good press seemed to have begun last August, shortly after President Obama asked the question, "When was the last time somebody ... used a travel agent instead of just going online?"


The media, prompted by ASTA and other agency organizations, went looking for the answer.

The result was a string of major and overwhelmingly positive stories, on TV (ABC's "Nightline," CNN, NBC's "Today" show), online (U.S. News and World Report and a three-part series on Forbes.com) and in print (in newspapers across the country, culminating in a recent front-page travel section article in the New York Times).

What has given the story legs -- this news cycle has now lasted an extraordinary 10 months -- is a combination of factors.

ASTA aggressively countered the president's assertion, turning a comment that might have been accepted as fact into a genuine controversy.

And when reporters started asking questions, they found travel agents alive and well, with satisfied clients. The resulting stories had a substantial trickle-down effect with consumers. They countered the myth that the best prices are always going to be found online, and bolstered agents' image with testimonials from travelers about how agents helped them when they ran into problems or secured upgrades and other perks.

But consumers were not the only ones who saw and read the stories.

"The good press is resonating with suppliers," said Steve Gorga, CEO of Travel Impressions, a wholesaler that works exclusively through agents.

The impact of the media stories is trickling up to the hotels and destinations he works with, Gorga said, and the results can be measured: "Last year was our best ever, and this year looks to be even better than last. Consumers are embracing agents, agents are embracing us and our supplier partners see a rise in bookings" through an agent-centric booking chain.

Shandor Winkler, COO of Palace Resorts and Hotels, confirmed Gorga's assertion.

"We follow the media stories a lot," he said. Palace works with agents "out of affection and necessity," he said, because his all-inclusive product is complex. Properties like his Le Blanc in Cancun offer massages, golf, international phone calls and excursions in the room price, and he said he believes it helps immensely when the value is explained by an intermediary.

Palace also has a presence with major online travel agencies and works with a wide variety of wholesalers, but Winkler said, "Some operators are pacing better than others, and it's clear: The stronger their commitment to travel agents, the better they do for us."

Many of the media articles focused on a breed of young agents who are exploring new models, and a trickle-forward benefit of all the media coverage might be that young people who otherwise wouldn't have given thought to becoming a travel adviser are recognizing it as a viable career choice.

Indeed, there have never been better opportunities for a young person to enter the field. Twenty years ago, if you were young, bright and wanted to see the world, your options were limited, and becoming a travel agent might have seemed more attractive than joining the Merchant Marine. But nobody became a travel agent for the money.

Today, young people have more options to travel in their career, but being a travel adviser can also mean starting out at the top, as a business owner.

Last month, at the Travel Weekly Hawaii Leadership Forum at the Moana Surfrider in Waikiki, four young agents held an audience of more than 200 suppliers riveted as Douglas Quinby, a senior director of research at PhoCusWright, conducted an on-stage focus group with them to explore their models, motivation and success. (PhoCusWright, like Travel Weekly, is owned by Northstar Travel Media.)

The four, all in their 20s or early 30s, offered up many surprises: None belonged to a consortium or used a GDS. Each worked on a service fee model and considered commissions to be simply "gravy" on top of the fee revenue. And a few were already making six-figure incomes with minimal overhead costs.

In the years since these panelists were born, media coverage has probably hurt agents more than helped them. But current coverage appears to be moving positively in three directions at once: down to consumers, up to suppliers and forward to the next generation.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter. 
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