A few years back, Woman's Day, a magazine largely devoted to advice hidden between ads for dishwashers, weight-loss programs and minivans, published an article that actually seemed to awaken industry leaders from their deep sleep as concerns erroneous media coverage of the role and function of the travel agent.
The article, titled "10 Things Your Travel Agent Won't Tell You," brought a quick response from agents across the nation and from some of our brightest industry minds, including Barry Liben and Roger Block of the Travel Leaders Group, John Lovell of Vacation.com and Jackie Friedman of Nexion.
So many retail travel agents attacked the article, by writer Anne Roderique-Jones, that Woman's Day announced it would be highlighting the services agents perform in upcoming issues. They also admitted that Secret No. 9 was inaccurate. I read it as a slash attack on both the motives and lack of ethics in the brick-and-mortar part of the distribution chain.
I found the piece so patently offensive that I ended up saying nothing. The written word never comes across well when those words are written in anger. And, I must confess, I could not dismiss the entire piece out of hand because I felt that large measures of it were either accurate or semiaccurate. So now, with the perspective of time and in a greater state of calm, let's look together at the 10 things you won't tell your clients, according to Woman's Day, and rate them on their accuracy:
1) "Agents are making major commissions."
I would rate that one as true. The commission range for a majority of products is 10% to 18%. You have to imagine few of us tell that to the client and that clients would be shocked if they knew. Under this "secret," the author points out that agents lead travelers toward products that pay a larger commission and often are coming from "in-house" preferred suppliers. That is also true.
At least one of our major agency chains requires an agent who sells a nonpreferred supplier to write a written report justifying that decision. Agents do not like to write reports justifying their actions.
2) "Travel agents can't book or price all airline carriers."
Sometimes true, this refers to an agent's inability, as cited in the piece, to choose Southwest when booking certain wholesale packages including air, hotel and transfers.
3) "Travel agents may not have been to the hotel or on the cruise ship they're recommending."
You think, Ms. Roderique-Jones? What insightful reporting. This is shocking, my fellow agents. I thought every one of you had been to each and every hotel in the world and sailed every ship on the high seas. This is a true -- but clearly meaningless -- assertion.
4) "Travel agents may not encourage flexibility of dates and airports so they can maximize their commission."
Sorry, but this is a clear distortion. In fact, brick-and-mortar agents are far more likely to know their clients than a boiler room online travel agency's (OTA) sales center. Agents almost always qualify their clients as to date flexibility. Agents who sell air do, I believe, still discuss departure airport options with their clients. This is just a silly assertion.
5) "Travel insurance may not be necessary, but agents push it because of commission."
Here is a key line in the patently ignorant and potentially dangerous explanation that follows: "If you have health insurance, you're most likely covered for overseas travel." This is where the author's factual understanding of our industry veers off the road.
We sell travel insurance because we need to protect our clients, including those with pre-existing conditions. Many of us in the brick-and-mortar sector, unlike the headsets at OTAs, know insurance options intimately and will not accept overseas bookings from uninsured clients. Score this one totally untrue.
6) "They're best for milestone trips."
Let's be fair. The explanation states: "It's easy to book yourself a quick flight from New York City to Dallas, but going through an agent for a special vacation can make or break your trip." I think this is a fair and true assertion.
7) "Online travel sites offer refunds and cancellation policies."
That is true, but then the author adds, "Travel agents won't mention this because they want you to book through them instead of online."
While it is true that refunds are available online, every study I've ever seen shows how frustrating it is for consumers to have to deal with an OTA when cancellation or problems arise. The person in the cubicle is not your advocate and will not likely care very much if he or she ever hears from the client again. Theirs is a game of numbers, not one-on-one relationships. But let's be generous and give this one a "technically true."
8) "A travel agent won't necessarily find the best price."
To find really good rates and deals, she directs the consumer to sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial. This is another false assertion, because most travel agents belong to consortia that enable them to offer preferred rates and amenities not available to the general public. And no website gets you a personal introduction to hotel executives prior to arrival.
The great industry truth is that the best travel agents work hard to earn lower commission by searching out the best pricing. They do this because they care about the cost and outcome of their client's vacation.
9) "A travel agent won't tell you that it is usually cheaper to fly on Tuesdays."
The article points out that agents deliberately withhold this "information" to earn a higher commission. This is simply a lie, and it is the assertion that the magazine's editor apologized for in a subsequent issue.
10) "Agents won't tell you to use a travel rewards card."
She goes on to assert that this is because an "agent won't tell you that they make the bulk of their money on packages," and obviously if the client is using reward points, the agent is losing "big dollars."
Another false assertion. Every top agent I know discusses credit card options and makes recommendations to their clients regarding the best rewards cards, the ones that don't charge overseas transaction fees, as well as those that get you inside airport lounges.
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So here is the bottom line: In an article purporting to tell the public the "secrets" travel agents won't reveal, 50% of the claims are patently untrue. But half do pass muster. When we're talking about getting it totally wrong 50% of the time, we're in cable news territory.
I thought this article ultimately had a positive outcome, as travel agents from every corner of the industry attacked its accuracy while questioning its motivations.
But we can't let "10 Things Your Travel Agent Won't Tell You" die here. Our travel advocacy groups, our largest and most powerful players, as well as our suppliers and consortia, need to see that it was the industry and not the readership that rose up in anger at these assertions.
In fact, the false perceptions above are still out there, and we have to fight them at every turn.
Wouldn't it be beneficial if the great minds that replied to an article in a supermarket magazine joined together to produce a factual list of what travel agents routinely do on a no-fee basis, then distributed it in print-ready form to every agent in the U.S.?