Free agents

The number of unaffiliated travel agencies and travel advisors has been steadily decreasing, but they still exist thanks to both the entry of new businesses and a fiercely independent few who don’t see any reason to link up with a consortium, host or franchise.
By Jamie Biesiada

Illustration by bizvector/

Illustration by bizvector/

Though their ranks appear to be dwindling and affiliation today is de rigueur, agencies that are not affiliated with a consortium, a franchise or a host agency still exist. And, due to several factors, especially specialization, there will probably always be some unaffiliated holdouts.


According to a recent Phocuswright report, 6% of respondents to a travel advisor survey reported that either they or their agency did not have an affiliation with a host agency, consortium or franchise.

That survey garnered 1,551 responses, meaning about 93 respondents reported having no affiliation.

“There’s no question it surprised me,” admitted Phocuswright leisure travel analyst Mary Pat Sullivan.

She was not alone in that response. In fact, many industry executives expressed surprise that so many advisors reported being unaffiliated today, though none were surprised that at least some choose to remain unaffiliated.

“It does sound a little high, but they’re out there,” said Kathryn Mazza-Burney, Travelsavers’ executive vice president of sales.

In recent years, the number of unaffiliated agencies has dropped. Phocuswright found that in 2007, 14% reported being unaffiliated, compared with 12% in 2011 and 6% in 2018.

Meanwhile, the number of advisors reporting affiliations appears to be on the rise. Six percent reported being affiliated with a host agency in 2007. That dropped slightly in 2011, to 5%, but jumped to 12% in 2018.

In 2007, 67% reported being affiliated with a consortium. That grew to 77% in 2011 and 82% in 2018.

Franchisees have fluctuated. In 2007, 12% said they were affiliated with a franchise, a number that dropped to 9% in 2011 but increased to 11% in 2018.

Sullivan acknowledged that the number of advisors or agencies reporting affiliations with hosts and consortia could be slightly skewed based on interpretation: A respondent could have reported the consortium with which their host is affiliated. But responding “no affiliations” is fairly indisputable.


Source: Phocuswright and U.S. Travel Agency Distribution Landscape: 2016-2021

Source: Phocuswright and U.S. Travel Agency Distribution Landscape: 2016-2021

Why remain independent?

For many advisors and agency owners, Sullivan said, “It’s the independence. It’s that entrepreneurial spirit. Some people feel like if [they] become affiliated — even if they don’t have to — they feel they have to change their branding or they feel they have to answer to somebody, and they don’t want to do that. A lot of people join this industry because of that entrepreneurial feel; they want to own their own business. And I think for the die-hard people who are still unaffiliated, that’s why.”

Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners, often finds herself on stage at industry events. Whenever she gets the chance, she polls the audience to find out how many advisors are unaffiliated.

‘I think some of them are just new to the industry, and they don’t know what to do.’
—Michelle Fee, Cruise Planners

“Lots of hands go up,” she said, “but I think some of them are just new to the industry, and they don’t know what to do.”

Kimberly Waters, Signature Travel Network’s vice president of member acquisition and engagement, agreed that at least some unaffiliated agents are new to the industry.

She said she also believes that agencies that have been in business for a long time are part of that independent group, as are agencies that specialize in one particular area or type of travel and work with suppliers directly.

Mazza-Burney posited that many unaffiliated advisors or agencies haven’t considered affiliation before because they specialize. For example, she said, Travelsavers is talking to two agencies right now that specialize in destination weddings.

“They, in their mind, always felt that there was nothing that a consortium could bring to them,” she said.

‘They, in their mind, always felt that there was nothing that a consortium could bring to them.’
—Kathryn Mazza-Burney, Travelsavers

Amarillo Travel Network in Amarillo, Texas, was an unaffiliated agency when Samarah Meil purchased it 15 years ago. While Meil does have a relationship with Leisure Travel Alliance, she said she still uses the consortium only for higher commissions with some cruise lines. For the most part, she still operates independently, using the agency’s own IATA number for all bookings.

At first, it was difficult to persuade business development managers (BDMs) to visit. But as the agency grew, Meil said, it became easier. Sales grew, BDMs started paying attention, and the agency is thriving today with 10 independent contractors (ICs) and the buying power to command higher commissions.

“It’s just not something that I’ve ever thought about, being hosted or joining a host, even though I think there are some great ones out there,” Meil said. “I guess now that I’m 15 years down the road, a lot of the suppliers know me.”

‘It’s just not something that I’ve ever thought about, even though I think there are some great ones out there.’
—Samarah Meil, Amarillo Travel Network

New York-based Fischer Travel Enterprises has been unaffiliated for more than 50 years, and president Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal said it has no intention to affiliate. She describes the agency as “a full-service lifestyle firm with an emphasis on personal, hands-on attention.”

In addition to helping clients with travel arrangements, she said, Fischer Travel also helps them with other aspects of their lives.

The agency is membership-only, with an initial fee of $100,000 for the member and his or her immediate family plus an annual fee of $25,000. Clients get access to 24/7 personal support with additional fees charged accordingly, Fischer-Rosenthal said.

The agency has been approached by consortia in the past, but its intention is never to affiliate because, she said, “We do not feel that we need their services, and we are very protective of our clients’ discretion, privacy and trust. Our clients have trust that their anonymity is fiercely protected.”

‘We do not feel that we need their services, and we are very protective of our clients’ discretion, privacy and trust.’
—Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, Fischer Travel Enterprises

Fischer Travel has established long-standing relationships with suppliers. Fischer-Rosenthal also argued that the agency’s clients aren’t looking for perks but for accommodations that fit their needs, and it is a priority for Fischer to control every booking aspect.

“I do not see a reason for us to affiliate with any companies,” she said.

“At this time, there is nothing that is offered that we cannot obtain directly for our clients. Our resources and networking capabilities run deep. It is how Fischer Travel has thrived these past 50 years.”


The case for affiliating

“I’ve been in this industry forever,” said Cruise Planners’ Fee, adding that years ago, agents “belonged to a consortium, in a sense, because it was a commission club, and they had some group space, but that was it. But with the opening of the web and technology and things that have evolved over the years, one person can’t do it all by themselves, nor can they afford what we can provide.”

While products and services vary across consortia, franchises and host agencies, the benefits most provide to members come in the form of technology, marketing and networking. They also provide perks for advisors’ clients, such as upgrades and amenities and, oftentimes, better commissions than smaller agencies or single agents could negotiate for themselves, an attraction that usually isn’t important for very large or very specialized agencies.

Cheryl Bunker, vice president of Virtuoso global member partnerships for the U.S. and Canada, said that unaffiliated advisors and agencies often are assumed to not know the full benefits affiliation can provide. Unaffiliated agencies also tend to be newer, very entrepreneurial or specialized. But Bunker said agency networks hold a number of benefits in training, marketing and other areas.

She pointed to some Virtuoso data to prove that agencies believe they are getting a return on investment as a result of their memberships: Seventy-one percent have been with Virtuoso more than 10 years. A number have been with it for 20 years, and some have even been members for 30 years.

Helen Papa, president of TBH Travel in Dix Hills, N.Y., was unaffiliated until she joined Virtuoso in mid-2015. In the years immediately after she started her agency in 2006, referrals kept her busy. But as her agency matured — and her clients did, as well — she began getting more complex requests and started to research affiliating.

Virtuoso provided what she wanted: a worldwide network of in-country partners she could rely on when her clients wanted to visit somewhere she had never been. As a result, she said, “our sales are more worldwide.” She called in-country partners “our affiliated offices, because they are here to make me look good.”

‘I can’t understand why any agency owner would not want to take advantage of it, especially since the cost is relatively minor depending on the size of the agency.’
—Roger Block, Travel Leaders Network

Travel Leaders Network (TLN) president Roger Block said consortia like his offer numerous benefits: education, networking, specialist programs, marketing, lead generation and more.

“You look at the whole portfolio, and I can’t understand why any agency owner would not want to take advantage of it,” he said, “especially since the cost is relatively minor, if nothing, depending on the size of the agency.”


Debating the cost

Libbie Rice, co-president of Ensemble Travel Group, agreed that the cost of joining an agency network shouldn’t prohibit agency owners and advisors.

“The barrier to entry is low,” she said. “We have different levels of membership that allow agencies to join as an affiliate for very little risk, so they can try us out before they become a full shareholder.”

‘We have different levels of membership that allow agencies to join as an affiliate for very little risk.’
—Libbie Rice, Ensemble Travel Group

Ensemble, like Signature, is a member-owned cooperative. Its affiliate program was announced in 2015 and enables nonshareholders to benefit from the consortium’s programs, contracts and more.

Other industry groups also offer different membership levels; often, the more sales an agency has on its books, the less it will pay, so that, as Block mentioned, for some agencies the cost is zero.

Block said there seems to be a fear that a consortium like TLN will force its members to behave a certain way, “like a McDonald’s franchise that tells you exactly how to cook the french fries, what hours you have to operate, everything like that.”

That is not TLN’s business model.

“I think I can speak for all the consortia out there and franchises,” Block said. “We are a business model that is here to work with our agency partners. We are here to assist them in growing their business and become more profitable.”

Last year, Joe Jiffo joined the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel (NEST), which, like Travelsavers, is owned by American Marketing Group, as its vice president of business development, which involves recruiting new members, affiliated or not.

In his experience both working for NEST and on the supplier side of the equation, Jiffo said he’d seen a number of unaffiliated agents who primarily sell land vacations, especially in more specialized areas like romance travel. Echoing Block, he said, “One thing that scares them off, they think there’s a high cost to being a part of a consortium, which there really isn’t.”

‘They think there’s a high cost to being a part of a consortium, which there really isn’t.’
—Joe Jiffo, NEST

Ultimate All Inclusive Travel in Gilbert, Ariz., was founded in 2003, and co-owner Geoff Millar said that until about four years ago, the agency remained unaffiliated because of its specialization, selling only all-inclusives.

“There wasn’t a consortium that fit what we did,” Millar said. “Consortia back in the early 2000s were really more catering to people who sold cruises, and we did not sell cruises.”

But when one of Millar’s most-sold suppliers became a preferred of TLN, the network approached Millar about affiliating at no cost because of the agency’s volume. Millar accepted.

It was also beneficial because that was around the time Millar was expanding his business to include ICs who sold more than all-inclusives, including river cruises and Hawaii. TLN was able to offer higher commission with those suppliers than the agency could earn on its own.

Fee advises agents to sit down and make several lists. One should be a wish list of what they are looking for in a host, franchise or consortium. Another should be a line-by-line list of costs to do business by themselves. That should include technology, marketing, training and other costs.

Then, Fee said, they should look at those lists and find which host, franchise or consortium comes closest to offering what they need.

“Talk to every single host, consortium, franchise,” she said.

Millar suggested that agency owners every year evaluate their agency and any partnerships they have, whether it’s with a host, franchise or consortium.

‘If I wasn’t getting any benefit or very little benefit from a consortium, I would consider going off on my own.’
—Geoff Millar, Ultimate All Inclusive Travel

“If I wasn’t getting any benefit or very little benefit from a consortium, yeah, I would consider going off on my own,” he said. “But I’d have to look at it as a whole organization. Are my independent contractors benefitting from it? Are my agents benefiting from it? Is the business benefiting from it?”


From independent to affiliated

World Travel Holdings and TLN recently made a splash with an announcement that the previously unaffiliated mega-agency would become a TLN member.

David Crooks, World Travel Holdings’ senior vice president of product and operations, said the benefits of affiliating had never been clear to him before.

‘We believe we have world-class technology, marketing, promotions, and supplier support, but they can also enhance what we do today.’
—David Crooks, World Travel Holdings

“Being as large as we are, we believe we have world-class technology and marketing and promotions and supplier support,” Crooks said. “But they can also enhance what we do today. That would only make us better.”

Block said the size of an organization doesn’t affect TLN’s potential value.

“We are adding to their offerings by the products and services that we do offer, so it’s purely a win-win for everyone,” Block said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a smaller leisure agency or someone the size of a World Travel Holdings. What we offer is additive to the portfolio of services or sophistication that that agency may have.”

Mark Hennigan, co-owner and founder of Dreamers Travel in Hampstead, Md., fell into the bucket of agency owners who felt they didn’t need to affiliate.

Started 11 years ago, his agency specializes in honeymoons, destination weddings and family vacations. It always built supplier relationships on its own, Hennigan said, and it was working: Dreamers Travel saw double-digit growth every year.

But then he started hearing from other agents and agency owners at events for top producers.

They were happy with their consortium, host or franchise, and Hennigan decided to start exploring the possibility of affiliating. He was referred to Travelsavers, with which he affiliated a year ago.

It’s been a good fit, Hennigan said. He appreciates the support Travelsavers provides and feels there is still more that Dreamers Travel can take advantage of going forward.

For Sally Black, founder of Vacationkids in Kunkletown, Pa., being independent was the right choice for 18 years. She mainly worked with two suppliers, a focus so narrow that it was easy to build higher commissions and overrides, she said.

Then one supplier cut commissions. She started to diversify her suppliers, but found that “It was harder to build preferred partner numbers when you’re more spread out.”

The family market, which Black focuses on, also presents its own challenges around school calendars and suppliers’ allotments for certain resorts.

As a result, Black became a Dream Vacations franchisee. The transition hasn’t been the smoothest, she said, because the workflows have changed as a result of different reservation and back-office systems. But Dream Vacations’ clout with the contemporary family lines with which Vacationkids often works was a good fit.

‘While change can be for the greater good, adapting can be painful.’
—Sally Black, Vacationkids

“While change can be for the greater good, adapting can be painful,” Black said.

Donna Alkarmi, owner of Lone Star Travel in McKinney, Texas, was unaffiliated for years. She used her sales numbers from her 10 years at a brick-and-mortar agency to negotiate her own contracts.

But six or seven years ago, she started hiring ICs and wanted to get them more exposure to clients and suppliers. She joined what was then, now TLN, with which she is still affiliated. It has been a solid training resource, too, she said.

In addition to exposing ICs to the industry, she wanted them to have their own lead-generating profiles.

“They were newer in the industry, where I didn’t need the exposure,” she said. “I had plenty of business.”


There will always be holdouts

While Phocuswright’s research did show that the number of unaffiliated agencies is dwindling, the general consensus is that some will always remain. Signature’s Waters posited that those would likely be new-to-the-industry agencies.

“I think there will always be some floating around out there, because — knock on wood — we’re always going to have new ones coming into the industry who are trying to figure things out and may not know this side of the business exists that can help them,” she said.

Having spoken to agencies that want to affiliate after remaining unaffiliated, Mazza-Burney said, it seems clear that most do want to affiliate.

“They don’t want to be out there on their own anymore,” she said. “They’re looking for that community. They’re looking for those networking opportunities that they can’t do on their own.”

Yet she, too, believes there will always be holdouts, especially “extremely niche” agencies. Still, she allows that the number of unaffiliated agencies does send a message to her.

“Six percent, to me, is a pretty high number,” Mazza-Burney said. “We’ve got some work to do here on our side.”