I want to plan a nice vacation in Costa Rica. Do I call a travel agent, a travel consultant or a travel adviser? Or maybe something more contemporary such as a "vacation lifestyle planner" or the new "leisure-time specialist?"
Travel agents are supposed to be disappearing. In fact, we've lost just more than 40% of our profession in the last decade. Yet there has been a resurgence in the number of consumers who think that professional guidance, often provided on a complimentary basis, is too good an option to turn down.
But any serious analysis of the growth of our industry, or our potential for growth, is hampered by the fact that we all call ourselves something different. The consumer media has no idea what to call us, so they brand everyone as a travel agent. After all, it is a fairly easy term to understand.
Travel agents generally do it all. An agent turns a request into a sale. An agent can represent a whole universe of products. Most of the time, an agent is connected to a computer system provided by an airline subsidiary. Travel agents are most often compensated on the basis of their sales. When someone says they are a travel agent in a social gathering, it is assumed that they sell everything from a package in Jamaica to a transatlantic crossing on Cunard.
The plain truth is that more than a third of the travel agents in the U.S. have already been replaced by online agencies and direct supplier sites that are more efficient at transactional travel. So agents are starting to expand their horizons, designing new approaches to personalization and true ownership of the client. And as they do this, many agents are looking for a new title.
The titles of choice these days are most often "consultant" or "adviser." It is virtually impossible for the travel consumer to differentiate between these titles and that of a traditional agent, but the terms do have both an etymological and a practical definition.
Travel agents who now call themselves consultants might not be aware that the term has its roots in the Latin verb consultare, meaning to consider carefully or ponder.
The term has come to have some specific meaning in the corporate world. We use the term consultant to describe someone who engages in creative problem solving for a group with which they are aligned.
Planning travel might be said to be divided into two functions. One is the pure execution of arrangements: doing things to make a desired trip unfold in a way that meets the client's expectations.
It is not easy for me to think of examples unless I go back to repeat trips. The person who books a first Royal Caribbean cruise, for example, has a wonderful time and then contacts the agent to organize another one.
That is not my world, although I do have an appreciation for the simplicity of the process of being an agent and following the client's instructions.
The consultant has no sense of simple satisfaction. Every trip is, as in the corporate world, a series of problems requiring solving: where to go, how to go, when to go, where to stay and how to fill each day with wonder.
The consultant in travel, as in the corporate world, discusses the problem with suppliers to arrive at the best solution to the problems posed.
The client has to hope that the consultant's loyalty rests entirely with the client. But one has to be careful with that assumption. Writing for the Gallup organization, Mick Zangari and Benson Smith pointed out that the favorite term corporations adopt when they want to rebrand their in-house salespeople is "consultants." They assert, however, that when companies retitle their salespeople as consultants there often is no real change in what the salesperson is expected to do.
This is an ongoing business trend, and our industry is late to adapt. People who sell equipment to manufacturers are now known as "technical specialists." Your stockbroker is now a "financial adviser." And some salespeople with multistate territories have suddenly become "regional vice presidents."
In my role at Travel Weekly, I have exchanged business cards with more than a few "dream fulfillment managers," though I always thought that title might better describe someone who arranges encounters with members of the world's oldest profession.
But we have not reached the cherished land, the coveted title of "trusted adviser." While more and more agents are calling themselves advisers, the term really has not been clearly defined in the mind of the consumer.
I would love to see some marketing firm test three doors identified as travel agent, travel consultant and travel adviser with a large number of study subjects. Which door would they select based on two or three different types of trips? I have no idea what the outcome would be, but it would be fascinating.
I suspect that there are a fair number of self-identified advisers in the travel world who are unaware that they are calling themselves by an old French phrase ce m'est avis, which translates to something like "in my opinion" or "as I see it." Advisers are less problem solvers than consultants are and more deep-knowledge mentors on a variety of subjects.
In the travel industry we have tried to refine the term adviser. Some of our colleagues refer to themselves as "trusted advisers." This is, in my view, the highest form of chosen identity in our profession because it carries with it a wide range of implications.
First, think about that word "trust." Travel agents do not score very well on tests measuring the public's trust when compared with other professional advisory positions. If a travel agent can, indeed, be trusted, that is half the battle when dealing with the realities of a consumer base that feels it has been self-educated on travel and that all the answers they are seeking are right there on their laptops, complete with booking buttons and pop-up, generic travel agents just a click away. How do you become "trusted" in the context of that kind of travel information overload?
Agents who aspire to be trusted advisers are seeking a position on higher ground. They are inviting comparisons to other trusted advisers in the lives of our clients: financial planners, certified accountants or personal physicians.
There are some challenges to competing at this level. It requires being welcomed into the family as someone who places the client's interests ahead of profits. You would stop using a financial planner who was putting your savings in a fund simply because the planner's commission was greater.
A truly "trusted adviser" might talk you out of a trip, might discuss your health and the impact it could have on your travel plans. A trusted adviser must be seen as a full-time advocate on behalf of his or her clients.
That is very different than being an agent of the airlines or the cruise lines. But few suppliers understand the difference, nor do they understand that how we see ourselves and what we call ourselves really does matter.
There is one cruise line I call several times a day. My average transaction with this cruise line is $20,000, and we are million-plus producers. But each and every time I call I have to hear that voice telling me, "If you are a travel agent, press 1." I keep waiting for the recording to ask me if I am a consultant or a trusted adviser with my own button to push, but that never happens.
Several times each day I am reminded that despite what I do or what I might achieve, the people I support will still refer to me as just another travel agent waiting to get past door No. 1.