There is an evolutionary trend in the travel industry in which increasing numbers of experienced agents are becoming independent consultants and more small travel agencies are working with host agencies, according to the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA). Ann van Leeuwen, president of the association which represents independent, ‘career’ or ‘home-based’ travel consultants in the United States and Canada, says some of NACTA’s host agency members are adding divisions to help transition smaller agencies to new models of business.
“We are seeing an evolutionary trend in which some smaller brick and mortar agencies are reducing their number of employed agents and opting to work with fully independent or hosted consultants,” says van Leeuwen.
Other consultants are staying together as networked independent agents - some working with the same host agency - after their own storefront locations disappear, van Leeuwen says.
Additionally, says van Leeuwen, some agencies are turning all or some back office functions over to host agencies and focusing their attention on selling travel.
“All this is good news because struggling smaller agencies have alternatives to parting with their valued agents and going out of business entirely while successful smaller agencies can increase commissions and lessen their workloads,” says van Leeuwen.
NACTA itself is adding both small agencies and independent consultant members. “We can expand on the resources provided by host agencies and deliver training, social and travel resources to independent consultants that don’t belong to host agency networks,” van Leeuwan said.
NACTA host agency members are also seeing the potential in servicing small travel agencies as well as individual, independent travel consultants. For example, Nexion Canada is working with a number of small agencies in transition, NACTA's van Leeuwen noted.
“Most small agencies have a difficult time handling accounting and other back office work while marketing travel but they can develop partnerships with host agencies at little or no cost,” says Mike Foster who heads Nexion Canada.
“We supply accounting, ticketing support, commission collection and payment and so on, leaving the small agency free to sell, sell, sell,” adds Foster. “We enable higher commissions at less cost for our client agencies so the relationship with us should be revenue neutral or better and carry less risk than going it alone.”
Nexion Canada can help a small agency transition its consultants to independent agents working from home. Foster says this presents an alternative to franchising and saves small agencies the anguish and expense of closing their doors leaving agents with nowhere to go.
Statistics related to the numbers of travel agencies and agents depend on several factors but John Pittman, vice president of industry affairs, consumer affairs and research for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) suggested in 2013 that the best measure of agent numbers is Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data – showing the number of full-time agency employees in the U.S. fell from a peak of 124,000 in 2000 to 64,000 in 2012. However, the ranks of independent agents swelled in the last few years of that period from 30,000 to 40,000 indicating an evolution of business models, NACTA noted.
Kelly Bergin, vice president Business Development at OASIS, the host agency division of Smart Travel Group, Ltd. headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, says “We are definitely seeing a trend of smaller agencies as well as independent consultants moving to a hosted model.”
“There are so many benefits in moving to a host agency; at OASIS we help with accounting by creating invoices and tracking commissions, and we create and execute websites and marketing campaigns, adds Bergin.
“When an agency owner crunches the numbers they find they save thousands of dollars by partnering with our agency and using our tools including regional in-person trainings and annual sales meetings. Owners learn and innovate which creates growth for their businesses. Agents love the feeling of community and support in our programs and our private Facebook group,” Bergin said. OASIS also is a member of Signature Travel Network and NACTA.
With the reform of small agencies and transitioning of employed agents to independent consultants, experienced travel professionals are able to stay in the industry developing and selling highly customized travel with superior personal service, van Leeuwen says.