This one is for you, Maria. You were among a group that gathered around after a recent agent training session. I was being bombarded with questions, but I remember yours most clearly.

"I am, finally, going into this business for myself. But I don't know what I should call myself. Am I a travel agent, a consultant or some kind of specialist or adviser?"

The sad fact is that our development as a sales force is hampered by our inability to define ourselves properly. If we don't know the difference between a travel agent and a travel consultant, how can we expect the consumer to pick and choose among our titles and job descriptions?

The problem is magnified by the mainstream media not knowing what to call us. So a part-timer who paid $500 for credentials and the ability to do fam trips and get free upgrades is lumped together with the agent who produces several million dollars a year from a stable of affluent and well-traveled celebrities.

I've had the privilege of meeting thousands of travel agents, consultants and advisers over the years, including more than a few of the legends in our business. And I think it is time to point out to Maria, to a few suppliers who don't know the differences and to the traveling public exactly what the differences are between agents, consultants, specialists and trusted advisers.

There is a premise to the way I interpret these terms. I think all of us must aspire to something greater. It is a process. Most will choose to ignore the challenges. That is the easier path. But the agent can dream of becoming a consultant, and the consultant can yearn to become that ultimate designation, the truly trusted personal travel adviser.

So here is how I see it:

• Agents use a GDS to book trips. Consultants use their personal contacts around the world to make reservations.

• Agents are adept at finding clients what they want. The consultant is rarely an order-taker and most often is part of a collaborative decision process.

• Agents make hotel reservations through a computer system. Consultants work directly with the hotel's executive team to secure a personalized stay with proper amenities.

• Agents do their bookings on computers. Consultants rely on personal knowledge and destination experience.

• Agents can access a profile of their clients. Consultants have personal knowledge of their clients' likes, dislikes, travel background and interests.

• Agents will call the frequent flyer desk on behalf of clients, for a fee. Consultants have the personal telephone numbers of the top mileage experts in their Rolodex.

• Agents go on fam trips. Consultants receive personal invitations to experience the world's best travel products.

• Agents book packages on price. Consultants seek out value, knowing that discounted garbage is still garbage.

• Agents book cruises. Consultants create customized cruise experiences.

• Agents will sell products that produce low commissions in the hope that the client will return to book something more expensive the next time. Consultants refer bargain hunters to travel agents.

• Agents book products with which they are familiar. Consultants arrange travel for people with whom they are familiar.

• Agents try to know their sales reps. Consultants get to know the best travel firms and enablers worldwide. They know the top executives at the firms they support, can call them directly when necessary, and their call will be answered.

• Agents book what the computer says is available. Consultants offer complimentary upgrades, amenities, VIP services, special gifts, customized destination reports, qualified hotel inspection reports, pretrip briefings and post-trip debriefings.

• Agents take pride in making a successful booking. Consultants take pride in creating a truly memorable experience as a result of going beyond expectations.

• Agents are, first and foremost, agents of the suppliers. Consultants are, first and foremost, agents of the clients.

What we call ourselves ought to have meaning in the marketplace. After all, it was Socrates who said, "Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of. ... The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear."

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].  
This column appeared in the July 26 issue of Travel Weekly.

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