In 2014, burdened by increasing annual supplier minimums and growing marketing costs at the national co-op to which they belonged, Dennis and Claire Sanchez decided they wanted to take their boutique San Francisco-based agency, SailAway Cruises and Land Vacations, in a different direction.
So, they joined the Western Association of Travel Agencies (Westa), a 152-agency regional co-op that caters to West Coast shops. A year later, the Sanchezes aren't looking back. In fact, Dennis said, SailAway did better as a Westa member in 2014 than it had done in the few years before the switch.
"The bottom line, Westa has been a breath of fresh air, innovative, attentive, affordable and profitable," he said.
SailAway's move to a small, regional co-op may fly in the face of traditional 21st century American travel industry logic. The consortium Vacation.com alone has a network of 5,500 agencies, and TravelSavers, Ensemble, Virtuoso and Signature all have networks that are at least triple the size of Westa's.
In fact, as Vacation.com consolidated the leisure travel industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, regional co-ops and consortia, including Minnesota-based Aura, Chicago-based GEM, Arizona-based Crown Travel Group, New England-based Action 6 and others fell like dominoes.
Only Westa and the Midwest-centric MAST Travel Network soldiered on under the regional model. Fifteen years later, they're still going strong.
Agents in the MAST and Westa alliances say that being in a small, regional group offers plenty of advantages. Notably, they say, supplier networks, while less extensive than those offered by the major national players, are also more targeted. Agencies on the West Coast, for example, are more likely to sell Hawaii than they are somewhere like Florida. So Westa works closely with suppliers like All About Hawaii, a moderately sized tour operator based in Portland.
"I think it is more specific," Julia Pound, the manager of Humberston Travel in Portland and a Westa board member, said of the co-op's suppliers list. "We pick the good ones, and we keep it kind of limited."
Regional networks also offer a more personal experience, according to agents.
"It's a little homey feeling," said MAST member Cindy Brown, who is the owner of Oui Travel in Batavia, Ill. "I'm not just a number. People know who I am."
Her sense of being part of something more intimate is partially due to size; MAST has just 215 agencies in its network. But much of it also has to do with geography. Because MAST members are concentrated in the Midwest, it's much easier for them to interact at various workshops and training sessions.
For Sales Sensation, an annual fall training event in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, MAST even hires a bus to transport attendees from Iowa, Brown said.
Pound has had a similar experience during Humberston's 10 years with Westa. She said she attends approximately four dinner meetings with suppliers and other members each year and goes to the two-day annual meeting, all without leaving the Portland area. A decade earlier, when Humberston belonged to a national consortium, just one dinner meeting was held per year in Portland, Pound said.
National consortia, of course, have their own advantages. For one thing, said Florida-based travel industry consultant Jack Mannix, a former president of Ensemble, their members typically benefit from larger investments in technology. As a result, the national travel groups can offer back-office systems that the regional alliances cannot, as well as a broader range of tools for the Web and for electronic marketing.
"Marketing and technology are two areas where economy of scale really take off," Mannix said.
He added that national co-ops and consortia offer larger supplier networks than their regional counterparts and get more attention from the national suppliers. In some cases, they might get better supplier deals on commissions and overrides, though that is frequently not the case.
Ultimately, Mannix said, whether an agency is better off joining a regional travel alliance or a national one might have to do with the agency's size. Those in the regional groups tend to be smaller than those in the national ones.
"I think that is probably because the large travel agencies may have more sophisticated needs," he said.
Brown said that when it comes to Oui Travel, which has four agents and typically sees annual revenue of $1.2 to $1.5 million, there isn't any question that MAST is the right fit. The agency, she said, benefits from having substantial control over marketing efforts and also from MAST's strong, strategic supplier deals.
In fact, Brown said she couldn't think of any downside to being a member of the regional consortium.
"I think that Mast is very well respected in the supplier community," she said. "We are small but mighty."