CNN.com recently ran a headline declaring, “The travel agent is dying, but it’s not dead yet.” The report based part of that inference on a single metric that is frequently used to measure the health of the agent channel: ARC’s number of agency locations.
According to Shelly Younger, manager of settlement services for ARC, that number has dwindled to 13,000 from a peak of 46,000 in the early 1980s. It began falling in the mid-’90s, when airlines capped and then cut the commissions that had been the foundation of the retail travel model.
But in fact, using ARC data to measure the number of agencies is no longer even close to accurate because it represents only those agencies that sell airline tickets under their own ARC accreditation.
Because agency business models have evolved rapidly in the last two decades, the drop actually better reflects two other trends: A lot fewer agencies are selling air, and many of those that are selling air are using the ARC accreditation of a host or partner agency.
ARC itself points out that while its count of agency locations has decreased, the number of agent-generated transactions has actually increased or remained flat, depending on the year.
The problem is that there is no other single metric that accurately calculates the number of retail travel agents in the workforce today, either.
“While we have seen the number of locations actually reduce year over year, much of that ... is based on mergers and acquisitions,” said Jeannine Hankinson, managing director of client services for ARC. “And we say that because we see growth within our transactions.”
Hankinson said ARC has seen transactions grow since 2009, when they numbered 136 million. Last year, ARC recorded 143 million transactions.
John Pittman, ASTA’s vice president of industry affairs, consumer affairs and research, suggests that the best measure of agent numbers is probably Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. By that measure, the number of full-time agency employees in the U.S. has fallen from a peak of 124,000 in 2000 to 64,000 in 2012.
A near 50% drop sounds pretty hefty until you add in one more number: The BLS says that the market now includes 40,000 independent agents, most of whom work from home. That brings the total number of agents in the U.S. to more than 100,000.
In short, there are still plenty of agents around, but their business model has changed so significantly that far fewer of them are using ARC numbers.
As air became less of an economic mainstay, agents began forgoing an ARC number. Instead, they turned to other industry accreditation. CLIA, for example, has its own agency CLIA number. In all, CLIA has accredited 10,700 agencies, and ARC estimates that together, these agencies employ more than 35,000 agents.
IATA also accredits agencies as ticketing locations; the number of these locations has declined, according to PhoCusWright. But it also issues the Iatan card, and there are about 103,000 Iatan cardholders in the U.S. To quality for an Iatan card, agents must have earned a minimum of $5,000 in commissions or salary or a combination of the two.
Another industry number, TRUE, has 2,300 cardholders.
ARC itself, recognizing the trend away from airline sales, in 2007 introduced its Verified Travel Consultant (VTC) program, which is far easier to qualify for than an ARC number is. VTC holders are not accredited to sell air, but they can use the card for other industry transactions.
“As we saw the number of our locations go down, we spoke to our customers, just to say, ‘Why are you leaving?’” Hankinson said. Agencies said they didn’t need an ARC number to book air, so ARC created the VTC number.
Many agents no longer need a full-fledged ARC number because they book air under someone else’s ARC number: a host agency, a partner agency or an air consolidator. It can be through major online booking portals for agents such as VAX VacationAccess, which enables non-ARC agents to book stand-alone, scheduled air.
In addition, agents can book air in tandem with a cruise or vacation package through any number of providers.
Cruise Planners, a franchise and host agency that is a member of American Express Travel Representative Network, is an example of this model. It had $206 million in sales last year but does not have an ARC number.
The 20-year-old group focuses on selling cruises and tours, a classic example of the way agencies adapted after airlines first capped and cut commissions.
Cruise Planners agents book air through a third party or by booking air through cruise lines and vacation packagers.
Cruise Planners has 900 franchisees, which might be one-person shops or have one or two associates.
In addition, there are other airline models. Increasingly, agent marketing groups are consolidating their air spending under a single ARC number. In part, that’s to make it easier for their members who do not have ARC numbers to book air.
But it’s also an effort to have clout with airlines to develop relationships that benefit both agents and their clients. In some instances, agencies can earn commissions on flights. In other instances, an agency can get waivers and favors with airlines because of the business it delivers.
According to PhoCusWright, the travel agency distribution channel accounts for one-third of the U.S. travel market, selling $95 billion in 2011. PhoCusWright is projecting sales of more than $100 billion this year.
VAX VacationAccess is another industry indicator. VAX is a major online portal for booking land vacations, cruises and air, both as part of a package and as a standalone. Some 100,000 agents are registered to use it, and the company estimates that about 75,000 of those agents are active.
In addition to actual data, anecdotal numbers from other segments of the industry illustrate the health of the retail channel.
Tour operators who sell either exclusively or almost exclusively through travel agencies are reporting double-digit growth of up to 30%. Funjet Vacations, MLT Vacations and Gogo Worldwide Vacations are all reporting double-digit increases in business.
Betsy Geiser, vice president of Uniglobe Travel Center, which has 500 home-based agents, and vice president of the Professional Association of Travel Hosts (PATH), estimates that the host agencies belonging to PATH represent about 30,000 agents. The majority of home-based agencies do not have ARC numbers.
Jackie Friedman, president of the host agency Nexion, which has 3,300 members, said that she thinks the number of agents is actually growing.
“There are so many people coming into this business saying, ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to do,’” Friedman said. She added that because travel lends itself to a virtual workspace, it has a very low cost of entrance.
Cruise Planners illustrates this trend.
“Eighty-five percent of the members we bring onboard have never been in the industry before,” Fee said. “They are doing phenomenally because a lot of them come from different businesses, so they bring that kind of business mentality.”
Cruise Planners celebrated its 20th anniversary with a party in Marlins Park in Miami that featured fireworks and a band.
“We were dancing on second base,” Fee said.