The number of independent contractors in the industry has expanded rapidly in recent years. Last year, a Travel Institute study found that 62% of respondents said they work as ICs, up from 29% in 2008.
Phocuswright, in its most recent report on the agency landscape, said the IC segment is "arguably changing the face of the leisure travel industry for good."
But the IC community, and the hosts and agencies that support it, face some big challenges in the year ahead and beyond.
After California led the way in 2019, other states are beginning to consider how workers are classified as either employees or ICs. The industry, led by ASTA and the California Coalition of Travel Organizations, was successful in vying for an exemption in the Golden State.
Though the victory in California left the industry with a playbook for how to deal with worker-classification issues, more time and effort will have to be expended in 2020 wherever the issue crops up.
The industry is also facing the fact that, with ICs entering the space as rapidly as they have been, some will not seek adequate training. That could damage the public's perception of travel advisors and the industry as a whole.
"I think ICs can be phenomenal for the industry, but they can also hurt the industry if they're not trained," said Kathryn Mazza-Burney, executive vice president of sales for Travelsavers and the president of the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel, both American Marketing Group (AMG) companies.
"I think, for us, that's key," she said. "I love that there are all these travel professionals out there as long as they're the right travel professionals representing our industry in the right way."
To that end, AMG is developing a company dedicated to training and education. Mazza-Burney said further details will be released but that its sole focus will be training.
Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network, said he also believes that training and incentivizing advisors to participate in the training are key to protecting the industry's reputation.
Sharpe said that four years ago, he felt training was "a huge hole in our portfolio." Since then, the consortium has been both developing in-house training opportunities, like a weeklong bootcamp, and forging partnerships for advisors to take other training, such as ASTA's Verified Travel Advisor certification (Signature subsidizes the course for members).
"Traditional training is critical," Sharpe said. "You need to make sure they have the curriculum, but then on top of that, the education that comes from networking at our meetings and events, at our Signature Educational Journeys, on our closed, members-only Facebook page. Those types of things are also critically important, to have a safe space where you can ask questions."
Signature incentivizes advisors to turn to education whenever possible. Its fam trips require them to have completed the Signature Travel Expert program, for example. Sharpe said there is a training requirement "in almost everything we do."
Sharpe said he still believes that untrained or hobbyist advisors do have the potential to harm the industry, but he added that the problem is self-correcting to at least some degree.
"Those that aren't really serious about this business will weed themselves out," he predicted
Mazza-Burney called for tighter restrictions industrywide on who can and cannot call themselves travel advisors.
"I think we need to be more selective," she said. "I don't understand why we make it so easy for people to come into this industry. I know we're trying to train, and we're trying to be more selective, but it's still out there. I think we as an industry need to do a better job regulating."