Can travel agents band together to increase their professional recognition among consumers? Does a lack of perceived value for professional travel agents impact sales and the ability to charge service fees? How serious are shortfalls in professional recognition?
An outspoken critic of multilevel marketing firms and card mills, Stilphen makes no bones about what he believes in or what he sees is needed to strengthen the travel industry distribution system and travel agents. Nor is he alone: 200 agents have signed on to Stilphen's STARS vision.
“STARS is about continuous training, certification and increasing the value of the professional travel agent," says Stilphen, who is also president of Coral Sands Travel, a host agency. "I believe that travel agent professionals have the right and the obligation to unite and organize themselves as a strong voice within the distribution system segment of the travel industry.”
STARS, as he views it, is a “forum and organization for those travel agents who deem themselves as real travel professionals."
"These travel professionals, who live by high ideals when servicing their clients and who spend their entire career training and learning more about the travel products they sell, particularly in today’s environment, need to separate themselves from the rest of the pack," Stilphen said. "It is, in my opinion, the time for all travel agents who take their profession seriously to band together under the umbrella of a single non- profit organization that is owned and controlled by them, the individual travel professional. The real travel agent professionals have been threatened since day one by those who have exercised and continually want to exercise control over serious travel agents either by making up unfair rules, playing games with commissions and allowing agency business models to exist that are inherently anti-travel agent professional.”
Stilpehn argues with conviction that the “future of the travel agent professional is in the hands of travel agents.” He applauds those suppliers, host agencies and consortia that also believe in travel agents future and support STAR.
STARS is the only IRS approved non-profit organization to be owned, controlled and operated by its' membership, according to Stilphen. “STARS' membership is solely made up of individual travel agent professionals who qualify via strict requirements to become members of STARS," he said. "The individual travel agent is the only voting member of STARS; subject to member approval. Host agencies, consortia and suppliers may be allowed to serve and support STARS, but have no voting powers.”
STARS was created to allow travel agent professionals to control their own destiny as a recognized professional. STARS' requirements for membership are much more difficult to attain as well as requiring continuous training to remain a member, Stilphen says. Included is an enforceable code of ethics.
Stilphen sees the travel agent community as highly fragmented. “No one has ever adopted a definition of what is a travel agent, nor has anyone ever tried to assemble the travel agent professionals under one roof," he said. "STARS was partly created to establish an organization similar to what the Bar Associations are to attorneys or the Institute of CPAs are to the individual CPAs. These are examples of highly fragmented professions with individual specialists much like the travel agents.
“We have many travel agent organizations that have not addressed the devaluation of today's professional travel agent," Stilphen continued. "Some don't even understand that this is a growing problem. They are primarily in the business of adding members and providing product training to these members for a fee charged to the supplier. Anyone can join these organizations by filling out an application, satisfying a few basic requirements and sending in a payment. STARS has established a higher criteria level that includes stricter membership requirements that will better identify the Travel Professional."
Can STARS get traction? There is no quick answer, Stilphen says. Since its launch in 2008, Stilphen has invested in STARS to get it off the ground. “My idea, as it was when I founded the Professional Association of Travel Hosts (PATH), was to create an organization specifically under the control of its' membership," he said. "One that would establish a standard code of ethics and conduct as well as having its say when establishing relationships with the rest of the travel industry.” Stilphen says he will withdraw when STARS has a viable elected leadership.
“I believe most travel agent professionals are tired of being treated as second class professionals by those who have invaded our profession and have converted the travel agent professional into an unimportant entity, without a voice, nor the strength to control their future," he said. "I feel it's time that the travel professionals be heard, be able to define themselves and work toward a common goal of preserving and building value for this profession.”
Stilphen encourages membership in other organizations and envisions STARS programs, direction and policies to emerge from STARS elected agent leaders, including how the group will be funded.
Stilphen said he hopes to attract 500 members to start. There is no cost to join STARS. He encourages agents willing to lead and give STARS direction to call him directly at 866-481-4678 and to visit STARS' website at www.thebrighteststars.com.