It occurred to me to write this piece about 16 years ago, when my own company was 16 years old and I was starting to write Reality Check columns on a regular basis. I put it off because I did not wish to upset friends.
But let me try to do this in a way that I hope will not be seen as a condemnation of travel advisors but, rather, as an exciting new way to look at the agency business.
You see, even though I am supposed to be an agency owner, even though our firm has won a fair share of agency awards, the truth is that we are not a travel agency, and we have never employed a single travel agent in our 32-year history.
Many of the travel agents in the U.S. are unpaid outside contractors. They earn based on what they sell. They are both "outside and independent," utilizing a business model that closely resembles what we see in the real estate industry.
Some sell a lot and make a lot of money. Most don't. It is, of course, all about selling.
The staff we employ at my firm sells nothing. In fact, it is our company philosophy that travel should never be sold.
Ours is an advisory service, a travel consultancy, staffed by a team of salaried, professional Concierge Team members whose only job is to handle the details after the trip is determined.
This stems from my belief, formulated over several decades, that we should never be "salespeople." We are not used-car salesmen, using every trick of the trade to close the deal. Our goal, I believe, ought to be patterned on the physician model or that of a client-centered financial planner.
There is an alternative to the standard industry real estate model.
Every office, mine included, has to have someone with years of experience and product knowledge who can help the guest determine "where or when." That is usually the owner, but not always.
Once the trip is determined, a trained, professional, salaried staffer takes over to assure the details and the personalization of the vacation are properly executed.
In other words, there has to be an office "physician" who speaks to the guests and helps them make a vacation diagnosis. After that, the support staff, or in the case of my office, a Concierge Team, takes over the booking.
No one ever sells in this model. In the first five minutes, a new guest who has worked with other travel agents notices the difference. No one seems motivated by commission, and we are quite willing to counsel that "this is not a good time to do this trip" or "the return on your investment on this trip could well be disappointing."
To help with the counseling process, only one person on staff (who handles the books) is even aware of commission levels.
The ability to hire anyone from any background is one of the great advantages of this model.
Currently, one of our consultants is from Amsterdam and knows Europe extremely well. Another is a former trial lawyer and another a former marketing executive.
They like working in an ethical environment where no selling is involved and the only rule is to do what is best for the guest.
I don't mean to upset you. I thought it was time to suggest that there really is an alternative to the traditional travel agency model.
I know it works.