The remuneration of travel agents has always been an issue of debate, form the halcyon days of unending airline commissions to today’s “nett fare” environment.
“You pay me a fee for me to tell you, independently, that the best way for you to travel is by utilising the carrier/hotel/operator that pays me the most commission,” is not really a solid business model.
It is not a defensible position were it ever to be legally challenged, but it is a position that every single travel agent finds themselves in on a daily basis.
And frankly, from the time that the profession was crawling out from under United Airline’s 2.00pm fax (does anyone else remember that watershed moment?), we have been setting our remuneration on the fly, and based on “what we can get”.
This is, of course, an exaggeration, but not a large one. The simple fact is that clients have no clue what we do and by and large, nor do the agents themselves.
Travel agents are important. They act as interpreters of movement within an impossibly complex world, they are supposed to understand and counsel the High Theology of international politics, climate variation, currency controls, transportation schedules and a myriad of other arcane pieces of knowledge that are dealt with on a daily basis.
The remuneration, however, is even murkier. A price is quoted by an agent for a specific product at which they can make some money; be this a cruise or a small hotel in Corsica, the principle remains, each and every product in the world has a price on The Web, and it doesn’t take their clients long to find it. And it is frequently more than the agent has quoted.
And here is the problem; until travel agents distinguish between the architecture and the construction of their product (clients’ trips), there will never be peace, and deception will reign.
Vast amounts of expensively-acquired knowledge are being compensated by a mark-up on a remote (but possibly wonderful) bed & breakfast. Agents are being forced to deceive their clients by transferring their remuneration from their knowledge to the product.
They are not being paid to know that Corsica will fit their professional interpretation of their client’s needs, but are being compensated by adding €20 to the base price of any product in Corsica that can be prepaid; and it is a base price that is known by all who choose to look at the property’s website.
Agents who counsel a couple prior to booking a vacation at a resort on the Mayan Riviera, and whose knowledge is being sought to assure that the choice of resort fits the clients’ needs are not being compensated for that insight.
And here’s the thing; clients, inundated with fabulous photography and endless images of drinks with umbrellas are none the wiser! Often they don’t have a clue, and book based on what their neighbours like, or what day the flight leaves. Travellers want knowledge and are willing to pay for it.
It is time that the architecture and the construction are separated; professional agents with a suitably robust knowledge base should be able to commend up to $300/hour to counsel clients on a complex and expensive trip. After all, if one is going to spend several thousand dollars on a vacation, spending a few hundred with a competent professional is a quite logical and reasonable expectation.
The key, however, is the individual agent’s capacity and competency for counselling; and if there is none, then perhaps that counsellor should seek employment in an alternative field. Given the prospect of billing at $150 - 300 / hour, there is an incentive for travel professionals to invest in their own careers; becoming an expert in a region, a genre of travel or any other sub-speciality will pay off; agencies will grow to resemble professional offices, and this is as it should be.
We need to remember history, and how we came to this position. In Days of Yore, travel agents knew where the brochures were; clients wanting foreign travel had little alternative than purchasing through these specialists; airlines did not appoint agencies unless they wrote a paper explaining why their appointment would be of benefit to the appointed carrier. The profession was meant to be of incremental value.
Today, of course, everybody has access to the information, but not everybody has access to the interpretive skills necessary to maximise the benefit of this flood of facts.
This is the role of the travel agent; the interpreter and intermediary.
By offering clients the opportunity to take counselling and have a plan drawn up that they can purchase on a “cost plus” basis, many will take this option, and once again the agency will shine and be remunerated.
If there is a future in the profession, it is because we take the responsibility of representing our clients’ interests first. Our nominal principals, for whom we were agents in the past, and perhaps to whom we are still tithed, do not compensate us well enough for the servility that is demanded, and in fact, they compete with us for the very same passenger.
The future is in representing our knowledge to our clients, being remunerated for guiding them through the thicket of information and finally, if requested, to finalise these arrangements in the most cost-effective manner with all prices being fully revealed.
I for one am simply tired of the deception.