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Identity Crisis

June 22, 2009 By: George Dooley Travel Agent


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The­ current clash between agent advocate Peter Stilphen and the Outside Sales Support Network over the latter’s Travel Retailer Universal Enumeration identification system raises tough questions for agents and the industry—notably the difference between a card mill and a legitimate and much-needed source of identification for agents.

The two dominant systems are the International Air Transport Association’s IATAN and Cruise Lines International Association’s system. OSSN’s TRUE is a relative newcomer to the ID card mix but, with 2,200-plus users, has proven its value. All three have won supplier support.

When the TRUE card—OSSN calls it a membership identification—came under fire from Stilphen, president of Coral Sands Travel, a host agency and agent advocate, OSSN launched a strong defense led by association President and Founder Gary Fee.

Fee and OSSN have a solid reputation in the industry, a fact Stilphen admitted in his online newsletter. Stilphen notes OSSN “has provided over the years, excellent services to the individual travel agent in the form of education, seminars, networking and resource material in addition to sponsoring two of the largest travel agent trade shows of the year.”

But he questions OSSN’s involvement with identification cards. “Why has OSSN apparently decided to support the travel industry’s worst nightmare, the MLM (multilevel marketing)/card mills as well as offered its own version of a photo ID card? Is it all about bringing in new members to the organization, or trying to advance their own photo ID card with the TRUE number? It appears to be all about promoting and selling the photo ID card first,” Stilphen says, adding that OSSN runs TRUE as a for-profit corporation while other cards are nonprofit.

Reacting to the charges, Fee says OSSN has repeatedly contacted Stilphen to remedy past “incorrect and misleading information in the effort to discredit OSSN and the TRUE identification program. The TRUE program was established to identify agencies for the purpose of recognition by suppliers for commission remuneration to agencies operating with a TRUE code.

“Contrary to [Stilphen’s] recent comments,” Fee continues, “OSSN does not support the MLM business model and does not have any MLM agencies within our membership base. We have contacted Stilphen numerous times with the reconfirmation on this fact and he elects to ignore this proven information.

“The TRUE coding system was not established to provide travel industry discounts. The TRUE program has been recognized by suppliers, including cruise lines, tour operators and hotel and car rental companies. All agencies with a TRUE code receive a certificate, just as CLIA ID holders,” Fee says.

However, Stilphen charges, “Other photo ID cards come under nonprofit entities with profits going back into training and education. As to OSSN and TRUE’s profits, one can only speculate where the profits are going. Most for-profit companies serve their owners first and not their membership or clients.”

OSSN counters: “Apparently, [Stilphen] believes that a different corporate filing structure such as a ‘nonprofit’ makes a better business model. There may be certain tax advantages for a nonprofit company but what really makes a good company [are] the people running it. OSSN has an executive team that always has the best interest of our entire membership as the foremost of our goals. One would be hard-pressed to find OSSN members who do not feel they get a great value in service and benefits for their membership price.”

Stilphen, a harsh critic of multilevel marketing programs and card mills, including JoyStar/TravelStar and YTB International, argued that any group offering ID cards to agents must put the agents’ interest first.

“The recent actions by OSSN are not one of support for the professional travel agent. I believe OSSN should return to its grassroots as a travel agent training and networking organization and abandon their photo ID card as NACTA [National Association of Career Travel Agents] did. They should also explain their position on MLMs.

“OSSN was also the recipient of thousands of advertising dollars from JoyStar while it was a member of OSSN. To be fair to OSSN, there were many media publications [which] touted JoyStar and also received huge monies for advertising. JoyStar was also an MLM under its parent name, TravelStar. These organizations and media folks also stood by and did nothing while JoyStar and many suppliers raped the travel agents of their commissions and booking transfers.

“The TRUE coding system, until recently, was maintained by IATAN. TRUE now maintains its own code system and has set up its ‘check-a-code’ website. A commercial operation, TRUE is now allegedly in competition with IATAN and CLIA, both nonprofit organizations,” Stilphen wrote. All of these lead one to ask, Is OSSN presently or becoming another card mill utilizing a new approach?

Again, Fee reacted sharply to the charges. “Stilphen’s comments, which try to compare OSSN with a card mill [are an] attempt to discredit OSSN. With over 7,800 travel agent members and 78 active chapters across the U.S., OSSN’s goal to provide ongoing tools, educational opportunities, greater recognition by suppliers and training to professional travel agents will move forward [at] the same pace we have kept for 20 years!”

While travel agents will have to judge the merits of the arguments for themselves, there is little reason to believe that OSSN is becoming a card mill or that it supports MLM firms. Strong agent support and a growing membership base among home-based travel agents clearly show OSSN’s perceived value and agents’ justifiable concerns with maintaining the affordability and integrity of the TRUE system.

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