The Economy Is Turning Up for Travel Agents

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It may be the best of times to be a travel agent and part of the travel industry.

Although the numbers aren’t all in, The Travel Industry Association (TIA) predicts that 2007 spending will total $740 billion, a 5.7 percent increase by U.S. and international travelers. (Growth in 2006 was nearly 7 percent.)

In fact, today’s travel agent has unprecedented opportunities, resources and support to draw on to deliver high-quality travel services to the public. Successful agents are often puzzled (justifiably) by the consistent negativism. The real question is not if the industry is growing but how well travel agents are positioned to exploit opportunities.

True, the dollar is weak, and there are problems in the housing market. Bailouts and buyouts dominate the headlines. But if travel sales are a valid indication, the economy is fundamentally sound, and consumers have confidence. 

Consider the following:
The cruise industry is booming. The recent CLIA conference saw predictions that 36 new ships will be built by 2012, representing a $22 billion investment and $300 million in incremental agent commissions.

New ships, itineraries and destinations—all part of a multibillion dollar investment by the cruise lines—have captured travelers’ imaginations and opened new sales opportunities for agents, including repeat sales. River cruises are booming, as are cruise tours.

Affordable and accessible destinations are increasing. Central/Eastern European destinations are now open, as is travel in Russia and China—largely unthinkable 20 years ago.

Appealing domestic destinations abound from national parks to world-class resorts, such as those near Disney and on the Las Vegas Strip.

Tour operators enjoy strong demand for most destinations and have imaginative programs to fit virtually every budget category, demographic and interest.

Hotels and resorts are booming from Dubai to Las Vegas. The spa market shows growth as well.

Car rentals are strong, and airlines are packed with leisure and business travelers.

If this sounds good, it is. And there are many more reasons for optimism. Travel agents are benefiting from new technologies, including new booking tools, customer relationship-management systems and dynamic packaging.

New approaches to direct-mail and e-mail marketing are working to help agents build sales volume. Branded suppliers and destinations promote aggressively. Education and training opportunities are everywhere, from content-laden conferences to webinars and onsite learning.

Agent consortia, cooperatives and franchise groups—several of which are agent-owned—are alive and well with quite a few setting records for profitability and productivity of members. British and Canadian firms are entering the U.S. market, while independent home-based agents and host agencies are adding a new dimension to travel distribution.

With the exception of air sales, commissions are high. Sales incentives, overrides and performance bonuses are commonplace. Industry associations abound with outstanding resources. They are also representing agents with skill.

Another plus is that industry suppliers are working constructively with travel agents and agency groups. New opportunities are also emerging for group, incentive and convention sales, along with vacation-rental opportunities.

There are problems, to be sure. But the bottom line is that travel agents are offering a diversity of quality products and services that consumers want and are willing to pay for. Between clients who want to buy and suppliers who want to sell, travel agents have new, exciting and, just maybe, unprecedented opportunity.

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