Richard Turen
Richard Turen

The Stanford business guru and author Tom Peters reminds us that "If a window of opportunity appears, don't pull down the shade." My goal today is pretty transparent. I want to see if I can persuade you, in fewer than 600 words, to look out the window and to leave the shade up.

What you will see is a landscape of digital wolves seeking prey in the form of customer acquisition by clicks rather than by true human interaction.

Apps and call centers are replacing travel professionals, and suppliers are responding by doing everything possible to entice the consumer into doing it all online with just a few clicks.

Many of you are aware of the strategies designed to encourage direct bookings. Sadly, many of you have accepted the fact that direct is the future. You have helped write your own obituary.

For me, it is personal. I don't worry about being replaced or losing clients to a faceless toll-free number. But there are two specific aspects of direct bookings that are rarely discussed in public media.

The first has to do with the morality of placing the best moments of a person's life in the hands of a commissioned headset who might have never experienced the company's own product. Do they know the guest's travel history, the status of their health, any personal issues that could impact the trip? Do they truly understand the customer's financial situation and how well-versed they are in insurance options, pre- and post-trip arrangements, etc.? How dare someone untrained in our field pretend to be a professional with the empathy and knowledge of a true travel professional.

The second issue has to do with my feeling that charging an unsuspecting direct "victim" the travel agent commission when they are not using a travel agent to oversee their arrangements is both an unpublicized scam and an action that, in my opinion, could run contrary to a variety of state statutes.

There have been a number of travel package providers and tour operators who have done away with direct bookings. These include Avanti Destinations, Classic Vacations, Gogo Vacations, Island Destinations, Pleasant Holidays and Travel Impressions. These companies deserve the praise and the support of any agents who call themselves professionals and advocate for the rights of their clients.

But no major cruise line or river cruise operator has taken the "No Direct Bookings" position until now. On Jan. 1 of this year, Europe-based Riviera River Cruises formally announced that, "effective immediately," it will no longer be taking direct bookings in North America. The executive vice president for sales and marketing in North America, industry veteran and, I might add, legend Marilyn Conroy told me that as this is definitely her last industry position, she wants to go out doing the right thing. "Travel agents are our distribution system, and it's about time we truly support those agents who have [supported us] and will, going forward, support us."

So here is our "window of opportunity." Finally, someone is doing the right thing. The product is not for everyone, but the ships are mostly new and quite beautiful. They are also an incredible value vis-a-vis the competition. As an industry, we are being given a test. Will we support those who have taken a strong stand to support us? Let's not pull this shade down. If we do, this might be our last opportunity.


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