TPN? TRIP? STARS? What's Going On?

The recent formation of Travel Professionals Network (TPN) by three respected travel agents caught many by surprise. Designed to provide a new way for professional agents to earn credentials, TPN appears to have hit a nerve.

Professional agents are fully and often personally aware of the shortfalls in client, media and supplier respect and the lack of consumer awareness of the value of a professional travel agent. But can TPN make a difference?

As with any startup, there are fair-minded doubts. Does TPN have the financing? Does the leadership have the time and skills to make it work? Does TPN have staying power—especially in view of the financial problems faced by other nonprofits in the industry?  What benchmarks can be used to measure achievements?

TPN is not alone in addressing key problems of professional recognition. The ARTA-backed Travel Retailer Identification Program (TRIP), now headed by Bruce Bishins, has emerged as a challenger, as has the STARS program launched recently by Peter Stilphen. The new entrants have different goals, but all three reflect dissatisfaction with the status quo in the industry.

One reason for the frustration is the emergence of controversial new model agencies, such as YTB and TravelStar/JoyStar. YTB, for example, claims 131,000 referral travel agents (or RTAs). The question often raised is whether these RTAs are professional travel agents or if they’re in it for discounted or free travel benefits. Many informed observers believe that the industry will see even more controversial new model agencies emerge.

Another reason is the rise of competition from online agencies, justifiably cited as a challenge to established brick-and-mortar agencies and home-based independents. Online agencies have challenged offline travel agents and, at a minimum, distort pricing by appealing effectively to do-it-yourself, budget-driven travelers.

A third reason is the suppliers who value travel agents’ ability to sell and often sell up. Others want the business booked directly with them online. This can materially lower distribution costs where margins are thin. Many resist or say they can’t afford the costs of distribution through the agency channel. Will they benefit from improved professional accreditation and recognition?

Another dimension to the TRIP, STARS and TPN moves is the position of established industry groups. This includes ASTA, ARTA, OSSN, NACTA, CLIA, NTA, USTOA, PATH, the Travel Institute, IATA/IATAN and ARC. All have a vested interest in an economically viable agency distribution system. What role, if any, should they play in expanding professionalism beyond what they are now doing?

Role of Consortia
Consortia may have a critical role to play. They already do yeoman labor in developing professional education and training programs. Annual conferences offer an array of excellent speakers on agency management, marketing and technology that go far beyond routine presentations on supplier products.

Consortia also educate and train year-round—online and offline. They also see, and benefit directly from, well-informed professional agents and agencies. It may not be too much to ask them to expand their role in promoting consumer awareness of the value of professional agents. Virtuoso, a major group, has had a working consumer awareness program in place for several years.

Except for state regulation, the industry has rejected licensing. But the industry and its leadership remain fragmented and divided over who is a professional agent, how professionalism should be defined and who should define and promote it. The real answers have come from consistently high agency-performance quality, competition, economics, technological change and demographics.

Market forces are clearly decisive. Professional travel agents earn and sustain clients’ respect by delivering outstanding performance at a reasonable price, day in and day out. Word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied clients are a proven builder of business. Professional agents deliver value.

A few groups—notably ASTA and the Travel Acquisitions Group (TAG), formerly Carlson Wagonlit—have limited consumer advertising programs, normally newspaper supplements promoting product rather than the professionalism of agents. ASTA has a consumer website that is effective. But much more might be done, perhaps on a cooperative basis. Even basic research on consumer attitudes toward agents would be useful.

There is little doubt that TRIP, STARS and TPN will have to prove their value to professional agents and to the industry. We can wish them well. But it leaves most of us asking the question: What is a professional travel agent and who is competent to decide? Is it based on education and training, expertise or longevity or a combination of all factors? Most important, who can communicate professional value to the traveling public? While some prefer to sidestep the issue, the traveling public might welcome clearer definitions.

Building public confidence and trust in professional travel agents will take time, talent and money. But it will also take willpower. And willpower, not resources, is what may be lacking.