Travel + Leisure is moving to a membership model for its annual list of top travel specialists, the A-List, charging agents $4,000 a year to be included.

The annual fee comes with benefits, including a dedicated page for each specialist on and promotions on social media channels throughout the year.

"In many respects, elements of the program will be similar to the way we've operated in years past, in the sense that we still will have an application process, there's still a rigorous vetting of the advisers who apply and those who we invite to apply," said Travel + Leisure editor in chief Nathan Lump.

He added: "The main difference is that the advisers who join the program will pay a membership fee. In exchange for that, they'll get a whole range of new benefits beyond what we have traditionally done, which was just a listing in a directory of those advisers."

The A-List comes out yearly in Travel + Leisure's September issue. Agents apply to be part of the list, though the publication starts each list by automatically inviting the previous year's listed advisers to apply again, and in some cases it seeks out new candidates. Applicants are vetted by the magazine in a variety of ways, including by talking to their clients. The membership fee is charged after an agent is selected for the list.

Lump said Travel + Leisure has been upfront about the new membership model.

"If they don't see the value in the membership, we don't want them to apply," he said of travel agents.

"Do I want to participate in their new 'pay-to-play' model and give them $4,000 as an annual fee to be on the list? No, thank you." -- Stacy Small, Elite Travel International

According to Lump, the model is being introduced for several reasons. One is financial. The list is time-consuming and costly, and "the fees will guarantee we can keep the vetting process rigorous and the list robust this year and beyond."

But the main driver is ensuring that the list is serving the readership well, Lump said. Many agents view inclusion as an honor, something he recognized.

"But in terms of the reader service for the Travel + Leisure audience, I always want to make sure that the advisers who are on the list are advisers who actively want to take on new clients and build their business," he said. "That's the reason we publish this. We don't publish it to provide a badge of honor to the world's greatest travel advisers; we publish it to point our readers to people who can help them."

In addition to inclusion on the list in print and online, Lump said members will benefit from their own dedicated pages on showcasing their expertise and client testimonials. The pages will be discoverable a number of ways, including through related content.

Members will be featured throughout the year in print and digital content as well as in e-newsletters and social media channels. They will also have access to the A-List logo and other materials they can use for promotion.

Travel + Leisure started informing agents of the change a little over a week ago, and Lump said the response has been mixed.

"We've had a lot of people tell us that they feel really positive about the change," he said. "They see the value in membership. They're supportive of it. They get it. And then there are folks who obviously don't like it, and we totally understand that. I fully expected we would have people who wouldn't like this change."

One agent in the latter category is Stacy Small, founder and CEO of Elite Travel International in Los Angeles. In a Facebook post, she called the change "disappointing but not really surprising."

"It's been an honor to have been selected for this list by their editorial team the past three years," Small wrote. "But do I want to participate in their new 'pay-to-play' model and give them $4,000 as an annual fee to be on the list? No, thank you. Not really sure why anyone would ... but it will be a different type of A-List when it's filled with only those buying their spot."

Travel + Leisure's A-List is one of a handful of notable top-agent lists in the industry. Agents often use inclusion on such lists in their marketing efforts, featuring badges touting their selection in email signatures and on websites.

Conde Nast Traveler also publishes an annual list of top travel specialists. A spokesperson confirmed last week that there is no paid component to the lists, which are editorially driven, with the exception of its Readers' Choice Awards, based on reader input.

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