As we go about doing whatever it is we do, we're continually running into a major disconnect with consumers and suppliers who seem confused about the role of the professional travel consultant.
If truth be told, a surprising number of our suppliers don't really understand how bookings for their products are created in the leisure sector.
The business sector is easier to understand. Transactional analysis covers most of the bases in business travel with some measure of customer service in the equation. But arranging business travel is often measured by ease of use and pricing models.
Leisure travel is very different, more complex in some ways and less easily understood. We have a large segment of the leisure industry that mimics the business model of large corporate agencies. This is particularly true in the online travel sector, where the largest players produce a heady mix of business travel and leisure travel packaging.
The idea of the online giants is to simplify the booking process and the decision making that precedes it. Options can be listed, described and purchased. Suppliers are also interested in simplifying the booking process and keeping as much as possible in-house.
How many clients have I had over the years who stated in our initial conversation, "I've never used a travel agent before." It is often intoned as a badge of honor. Few of the clients who come to our firm have any idea how the compensation model of the leisure consultant really works.
For example, in an analysis of our 2015 total production, we found that 92% of our bookings were provided on a complimentary basis to the consumer. That means that there were no fees of any kind. They got us for free. When we point this out to first-time clients, they are often shocked.
Of course, I want to shock them. I want them to initiate a discussion of fees. I want them to leave the conversation with a sense of wonder and anger for failing to understand that they could have engaged my services all these years without paying me a dime. I want them to understand that the travel sector routinely charges consumers for personalized and truthful travel counseling that is never provided.
Six months ago, I developed a relationship with a client who happened to be an old-school contract lawyer in Manhattan. He was quite interested in our conversation, and he went so far as to call me back for further discussion. I was planning his vacation to New Zealand, but he wanted to ask me some pointed questions about our industry and what services "people like you" provide. He wanted specifics.
I explained that "how" was the major topic to discuss because most of my clients have a sense of where they want to go in the world.
He immediately interrupted to ask if I always sent them where they asked to go. I said no, I sometimes talk clients out of travel to a destination based on their health, their prior travels, their expectations and my feelings about their safety. But for the most part, I move on to the big ask of how to do this trip.
There are, as every travel professional and just a small handful of travel writers know, about five or six ways to do a vacation overseas.
You can do it on your own, renting a car or taking local buses. This is for the lonely, antisocial traveler who thinks he actually knows more than someone who lives there.
Then there are the package tours that provide a sense of independence while still having the visitor tethered to the basics -- a travel-dog-on-a-long-leash sort of independence. If they arrive in the safety of their hotel room in Quito, Ecuador, will they know what to do next? Will they be able to get around Beijing on their own? Can they book their own culinary lessons in Budapest? If they pass my "Can they?" test, package tours make sense.
One can do an escorted tour almost anywhere these days, and some of them are extraordinary. But to enjoy touring, you have to actually enjoy the company of others and be willing to give up on some of the notions of youth that encompassed globe-spanning almost exclusively in the company of someone you love.
Group travel is a kind of social Russian roulette. You can stack the odds in your favor, and a great travel consultant can show you how to do that. But what do you really know about your fellow groupers before you encounter them on vacation?
This creates the need for a good deal of introspection as the client must anticipate group dynamics. I have to explain how they work, and I have to offer an analysis of the social demographics likely in each scenario. It's just something the leisure seller needs to know.
You can book a hotel or two and rent a car and be free from companionship, information, shared experiences and access to new locations.
"How," I often ask, "will you react to getting lost in a place where you don't speak the language?" If the clients tell me that getting lost is exactly what they want to do, I suggest that they do it. I then suggest that they not use an agent.
Then there are cruise ships, often the most comfortable way to see a lot in a little bit of time. A hotel that moves from place to place is extremely efficient because it eliminates the need for internal transportation arrangements, time and effort devoted to dining options and the chore of packing and unpacking. This last item is often a game-changer; it is just too much of a hassle for the traveler.
The lawyer found this interesting and asked why I had not tried to talk him into seeing New Zealand on a cruise.
I threw back some of what he had told me about his interests and his desire to see as much as possible in the two weeks he had for this vacation. I pointed out the number of days at sea on itineraries in this part of the world and the likelihood that he would be spending time in Australia, a country he had previously visited.
The conversation then included the possibilities of riverboat or barge travel, culinary tourism, art touring and the advantages of seeing New Zealand by private jet. The "how" consultation takes a while, I pointed out.
I heard the lawyer take a deep, satisfying drag on his cigar. "So, Richard, what else would you talk about to a client?"
I mentioned air arrangements, pre- and post-trip plans and insurance.
"Do you actually counsel and advise on insurance?" he asked.
Yes, I said, and I know that it is generally illegal to do so since I am not a registered insurance agent. But I do it anyway. I am not letting my clients travel without the best insurance recommendation for their scenario.
"So is this what most travel agents would do as part of their services?" he wanted to know.
"Of course," I responded, pointing out that this is the difference between a travel consultant or adviser and an agent who simply executes reservation requests.
Then he said something very interesting: "I wonder why I was charged the travel agent's commission for the past 20 years when I never used an agent. I never received the services for these bookings that you describe. Yet they build the fee into the cost, encourage me to book with them and never tell me they are charging me an extra 10% or whatever it is for services they simply don't perform. I wonder why no one has ever considered this fraud. I'll bet there is state statute and case law that would identify this as charging for services not performed. That happens to be against the law."