What's Your Opinion? Beware of Fake Sellers of Travel

What are your thoughts on bogus agents and their attempts to stake a claim in the industry? You can connect with other professional agents to discuss the controversy at AgentNation

You’ve all met them: agents who seem to have scored their certification cards from Cracker Jack boxes and now abuse them for discounted trips or bags of pens, T-shirts and other freebies at trade shows. Their joyride did come at a price—but you, the legitimate agent who is serious about the profession, are the one paying it.


When these “agents” take up valuable fam-trip spaces, for instance, it hurts not only the suppliers, but damages the reputation of an already beleaguered industry. “These practices anger me because these amateurs only have one motivation: to receive travel discounts,” says Nancy Vinson, president of Vacation Discounters Inc. “The only people they truly serve are themselves. When a professional organization allows the issuance of photo ID cards with no qualifications, it tarnishes our professional reputation.”

Card mills” is the common name for organizations that hand out certification cards without much, if any, screening. In their quest to just make a buck, these groups create a dilemma for agents, suppliers and organizations looking to protect their reputations.

“ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) and CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) should target card mills,” says Randall Brown, president of Corniche Travel in West Hollywood, CA. “It’s commonplace for consumers to purchase a card for $300 or $400 and receive discounts from suppliers. The same is true for multi-level marketing umbrellas that sign on anyone claiming to have a potential client base.”

Brown recalls a situation where he encountered the fallout of such a problem.

“Just this past January, I had a conversation with a friend from church whose husband had recently signed up with a local ‘travel company’ to earn free travel,” he says. “I asked her how much he had to pay, and she had no answer. I’m familiar with this company and they often charge $700 to $800. When asked how her husband was going to learn the travel business and become a professional, she advised he was going to take the CLIA training. So, it appears that this agency is selling CLIA photo ID cards. As you may know, CLIA has no criteria for issuance of ID cards, which is evident in this type of abuse.”

The Boiling Point

Travel Agent explored the topic of phony agents last year when mass controversy surrounded multi-level marketers YTB and Joystar—two cases that unfairly brought negative attention to all agents.

"These practices anger me because these amateurs only have one motivation: to receive travel discounts. The only people they truly serve are themselves."-Nancy Vinson, Vacation Discounters Inc.

YTB has been accused of violating laws regulating the sale of seller-assisted marketing plans, franchises and travel-discount plans. The issues have special meaning for agents who are also facing the demise of Joystar, which may impact scores of agents and at least $350,000 in unpaid commissions, Travel Agent contributor George Dooley reported last year. Both Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Lines have dropped Joystar. Unlike the case with YTB, however, legal action is being left to individuals.

“Over the last several years, so many states have instituted ‘sellers of travel’ protection funds,” says Vinson. “The states are consistent in collecting these funds from travel agencies. They should also be consistent in investigating and taking action against abuses.”

Agents concerned with the future of YTB and its impact on the travel industry will have to wait until September when the class-action lawsuit brought by California’s state attorney general is expected to be heard in Los Angeles. The state’s attorney general filed the suit against YTB in August 2008, alleging that YTB “operates an unlawful endless chain scheme (pyramid scheme) that relies on untrue and misleading representations and unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practices.”

The YTB Saga

Travel Agent broke the YTB scandal last August when George Dooley reported on legal action brought by the California Attorney General against the company.

In part, the State argued, “While Defendants (YTB) purport to be in the business of selling travel, their real business is the operation of a pyramid scheme that relies on the sale of essentially worthless websites they refer to as ‘online travel agencies.’ For the opportunity to own and operate an online travel agency, consumers pay Defendants over $1,000 per year.”

In an interview with Travel Agent prior to the California Attorney General’s lawsuit, J. Kim Sorensen, YTB’s founder and president, admitted that YTB’s business model was controversial but frequently misunderstood. Multilevel marketing isn’t illegal (pyramid schemes are), he noted, urging agents to understand the difference. “There has been some progress in turning YTB’s image around,” Sorensen told Travel Agent last year. “We are working all the time to get better. We are developing our own Travel Agent Certification program. Our training is expanding all the time. As long as we recruit large numbers of part-timers, a certain group out there will not like YTB.”

How to Screen

The host agencies, associations and consortia all have policies on “pseudo-agents” going back years, but many still have some loopholes. For example, ASTA’s requirements are only for new members and the association does not consistently track its existing members. That said, ASTA’s requirements are pretty solid, and member agents must make $5,000 annually in sales.

Also, to qualify for ASTA membership, agents must be located in the U.S. or one of its territories, hold state licenses or a registration to operate a travel agency (when required) and follow ASTA’s code of business ethics.

For international membership, agents are required, among other things, to be in good standing with IATA (International Air Transport Association) or to be operating in accordance with all applicable laws of the company’s country of residence.

“These scam artists surface every so often,” Vinson says. “My question is, ‘Where is ASTA when this occurs?’ Standing on the sidelines, doing nothing? A few local agency owners have told me of their recent audits by IATA, so it appears IATA is actively auditing travel agencies and their ‘list.’ The majority of agency owners take responsibility of auditing the employee lists.”

“Obviously a problem exists with people falsely claiming to be travel agents, but as to how to identify them, unfortunately, there is no clear [solution],” a spokesperson for ASTA told us. “A person’s history speaks volumes as does membership in professional organizations such as ASTA, CLIA and so on. Conversely, though, the absence of such memberships does not mean someone is not a legitimate agent.”

Guy Miller, director of sales and marketing for Grand Isle Resort & Spa in Great Exuma, Bahamas, says he works directly with major operators before organizing a fam trip to his property. “I’ll just call one of the more reliable ones like Classic Vacations or someone else and basically just ask them to give me their top 100 agents,” Miller says. “It’s as easy as that. Then I’ll just pick my agents right off the list. This way I know they are serious about the profession and are actually going to produce after they leave.”

But although Miller finds it easy enough to screen an agent for a fam trip, he doesn’t know what can be done about screening agents for trade shows, a problem that may be a lot more difficult to solve. “I go to these shows and sometimes all you see are the bag handlers,” Miller says. “You know, the guy who basically just goes from table to table, not talking to anyone, just collecting a bunch of stuff to fill his bag with. Something has to be done about that because we are paying good money for a booth so we can promote and educate people about our product, and then you have people like that who are basically just taking advantage of you and have no intention of ever selling your product.”

Suppliers Doing Their Part

Perhaps one of the best agent screening programs is that of Sandals Resorts International’s (SRI). According to Kevin Froemming, president of Unique Vacations Inc., training and consistent monitoring of travel agents are the two keys to success for both SRI and the agents themselves. Unique Vacations Inc. is the worldwide representative for Sandals Resorts, Beaches Resorts, The Royal Plantation Collection and Grand Pineapple Beach Resorts.

Unique Vacations employs a one-to-one sales approach to the travel agent community. They have a database, and partner travel agents and agencies are personally selected through a combination of qualifications, including going through an extensive training process, confirmations through dedicated business development managers and monitoring for consistent production.

Jolly Beach Resort in Antigua found that the biggest problems are the fams booked via the island’s Ministry of Tourism. To counter this, they now check IATA/IATAN cards matched to a photo ID and a document from the travel agency on original letterhead, and will only accept agents who can submit the above regardless of where they come from.

"The suppliers should do a better job in the monitoring process...There are still too many hotels and hotel brands that accept any travel ID card without question."-Randall Brown, Corniche Travel

But Corniche Travel’s Brown isn’t convinced suppliers are doing everything they can. “The suppliers should do a better job in the monitoring process,” he argues. “There are still far too many hotels and hotel brands that accept any travel ID card without question.”

Travel Agent will continue to keep you informed about the YTB controversy and update you on additional steps that organizations and suppliers are taking to put an end to, or at least limit, this practice, which is plaguing your profession.