The travel agency industry must grasp control of its own destiny and determine its own future—including how professional travel agents are defined and identified, says Bruce Bishins, president of the Travel Retailer Identification Program (TRIP).
Bishins says that the launch of the new TRIP program enjoys strong support from the agency community and from suppliers. He also says that TRIP justifiably raised questions about admittedly divisive issues—such as defining who and what is a travel agent.
The TRIP program includes an Accredited Travel Retailer (ATR) designation and the TRIP Travel Agent ID Card, Bishins said. But it is far more than just an ID card. The TRIP program impacts and defines who and what is a professional travel agent and raises the perennial issue of qualifications and perquisites.
"TRIP is not just another card and not just another set of credentials in an agency distribution channel," Bishins says. "The channel is already crowded with too many people neither prepared nor committed to being professional and legitimate sellers of travel. TRIP will be the high bar that the industry has sought for so long, and now, finally has."
Structured as a non-profit corporation, with a governing board of directors composed of both travel agents and travel suppliers, TRIP will be the industry's standard-bearer. TRIP will maintain and implement an accreditation program for travel agencies that do not participate in either the Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC) or International Air Transport Association (IATA) settlement plans.
Bishins also argues that the travel agency distribution channel has changed. The ARC and IATA are owned by airlines. TRIP, on the other hand, can determine how travel agents will be accredited and identified, including cruise-only agents. "Travel agents should determine professionalism and standards," says Bishins. "Rigorous, but attainable criteria will be required to obtain the new ATR designation with a clear and vetted set of credentials identifying legitimate, professional travel sellers."
The new Travel Agent ID Card will be introduced for all qualifying travel agents, possibly as early as 2009, regardless of whether or not the agent is affiliated with an ARC- or BSP-participating travel agency. The TRIP Travel Agent ID Card will have high-level security and recognition features to assure proper acceptance throughout the industry and to guard against tampering.
Bishins has convened a meeting of travel agencies, travel suppliers, travel agency associations and travel agency marketing and franchise groups for a TRIP Orientation meeting August 19, at the Atlanta Airport Marriott Hotel. He also announced the creation of a new TRIP website at www.tripcorp.org, detailing the TRIP program and the Orientation meeting agenda.
While optimistic about the industry's response, Bishins admits that a battle lies ahead. The dominant forces remain IATA and its IATAN unit, along with the Cruise Lines Industry Association (CLIA), both offering cards. Bishins said that he believes that the cards offered by the Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN) and the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (NACTA)—both respected groups—were more properly considered membership cards rather than industry-wide accreditation.
Bishins also stresses that TRIP—strongly backed by the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA)—will be not only the first jointly managed travel agency accreditation and identification program, but the first managed by agents and suppliers. As a non-profit group, any revenues above costs would be funneled back to the industry to provide funding for a public awareness campaign on the value of professional travel agents. TRIP will maintain and implement an accreditation program for travel agencies
This would call into question the future of the IATA/IATAN ID Card Program that at this point in time is a key to industry recognition. IATA/IATAN also has global reach. It identifies US Airline Appointed Agency and Travel Sales Intermediary (TSI) Agency personnel. The numeric code is basic as is the photo ID card for agents, including independent contractors. It is a key to reduced-rate air-travel benefits.
Bishins is highly critical of IATA/IATAN's lack of transparency and accountability. This is especially true of the profitability from IATA/IATAN card sales. Revenues are presumed returned to the airlines—who eliminated agent commissions in 1995. Like IATAN, CLIA has strong defenders and critics.
But Is It Necessary?
Taking a different approach to the issues is Jim Smith, an industry consultant and president of Market Share Inc. With experience as an agent, consortia and supplier executive, Smith sees the agency industry in flux. "To me, adding another accreditation and identification program is redundant. I respect ARTA and TRIP and what they are trying to do, but is it necessary?"
Smith sees the problem as a result of continued industry fragmentation. He questions the extent of supplier support for the TRIP program. "In my experience, industry suppliers maintain tight controls over any perks made available to agents. They have the technology to track agency and agent productivity. They know who delivers and who does not. In slack periods, they may feel free to disperse benefits to questionable producers. But they have the controls in place," Smith says.
Like Bishins, Smith admits frustration with the issue of card mills and multilevel marketing scams and sees a need for better, broader accreditation and identification. Both executives see the rapidity of change in the industry as a challenge. Notably, they see the decline in brick-and-mortar agencies and the growth of home-based independents as a new phenomenon. But they also see extraordinary opportunity for professional agents.
A New Breed of Agents
"Look at the diversity," Smith argues. "Today's agent may be part time or full time, a cruise specialist, a corporate travel expert, a specialist in meetings and conventions, a luxury travel specialist or an expert in inbound tours or one of a dozen niche or destination specialties. Some are brick-and-mortar and others home-based independents. And we have a new breed of agents from YTB International and JoyStar as well as other groups who have different business models. What is a professional travel agent? Who should determine the character, training or productivity levels of agents?"
Smith also questions the role of suppliers in the equation. "What are the advantages of a new card or accreditation system to them? What is the down side in terms of costs, staff training and efficiency? Can a new card serve Canadian agents? Can it be global as the IATA/IATAN card now is?"
Smith argues that until the fragmentation of the travel agency distribution channel ends, travel agents, consortia, host agencies and suppliers will have to live with what they have. So, too, must the traveling public.