"Card mills" have been the bane of our industry, and the talk about how to eliminate this scourge has been plentiful, and—up until recently—mostly lip service. Certain illegitimate host travel agencies sell travel agent credentials to people seeking only the opportunity to "travel like a travel agent," receiving discounts, upgrades, and other extras, to which they are not entitled.
Multi-level marketing (MLM) also looms large in this discussion. In these scenarios, card-carrying "travel agents" have more interest in signing up more "travel agents" than in selling travel and serving travel consumers. Like any MLM scheme, the focus of the seller is to sign up more sellers, rather than to find actual buyers. But as a seller and a representative of the MLM company in question, buying from or through that company is good corporate citizenship. The result is that if you keep signing up lots of sellers, they act as the buyers and consequently a lot of stuff is bought (or sold, depending on your perspective).
Hurting the Travel Industry
This all works fine when it's laundry soap from Amway or shampoo from Nu-skin, as this doesn't impact the market for legitimate sellers of soap and shampoo. However, the travel industry is an entirely different animal. Card mills thrive by signing up thousands and thousands of faux travel agents, who mostly only sell travel to one another. But if you have 10,000 of these fake agents, all of whom are likely to be big travelers, these folks represent a huge volume of travel. And there are an awful lot of cruise, hotel and tour companies that are "addicted" to the revenue that comes from these imposters.
Well, one supplier finally pulled a Nancy Reagan ("Just Say No"). A few weeks ago, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines made a bold and clear statement by cutting off certain card mill operations, indicating that they would no longer accept bookings from, nor pay commissions to, these organizations and their agents.
We can talk all day about how card mills harm the industry and spoil things for legitimate home-based travel agents, but as long as travel suppliers enable this dysfunctional behavior and accept the bookings from these card mill agents, nothing will change. Until—and unless—more suppliers "just say no," individuals and organizations will continue to take advantage of supplier largesse while pretending to be travel agents.
Is this a real trend? Will others follow suit? And what if you are a real travel agent doing real business, but happen to be associated with one of these card mills? I would caution agents to do your homework: If you're a real travel seller, make sure your host isn't signing up fake travel agents. And suppliers should also do careful analysis of both host and agent to be sure they're not "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."
Kerry J. Cannon, Jr.Group Publisher [email protected] 212-895-8247