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The Changing Role of The Travel Agent
Shannon Stewart

Charging a fee for a service is something most consumers expect. We do not expect free advice from our lawyers and stockbrokers. We have no trouble paying for the services of personal trainers, gardeners and interior designers. Moreover, we are paying banks all kinds of fees now, from ATM machine charges to annual fees for credit cards. As long as travel agents make our lives better or easier, we cannot expect to get their services for free.

Until recently, the services provided by travel agents were free to their customers. Travel agents had always been the agents of the airlines, hotels, rental car companies, cruise lines and other suppliers. Agencies received commissions (generally 10% of the total base fare or transaction) from these suppliers. Those commissions allowed travel agencies to provide services to travelers at no cost.

The paradigm of free travel agent services began to shift in 1995 when Delta Airlines imposed a $50 limit on domestic airline commissions. That new cap meant that agencies received a 10% commission on all tickets up to $500. Anything over $500 was limited to a $50 commission. The $50 cap was immediately adopted by all of the other major U.S. carriers except Alaska, TWA and Southwest. At that time, the airlines were beginning to recover from years of operating losses by cutting expenses in all areas, including agency commissions.

Most travel agencies handled the commission cuts by streamlining their operations, cutting back on staffing and controlling costs. They adjusted their internal costs to ensure the customer felt as little impact as possible. However, some agencies began migrating to a fees-for-services business model by tacking a small charge onto every transaction. For customers who valued the service provided by their travel agents, these new fees did not present an issue.

This past September, the airlines again changed the commission structure for travel agents. This move, initiated by United Airlines, dropped commissions to 8%, effectively cutting as much as 20% of a travel agencyapostrophes revenues. The airlines would have consumers believe that dropping agency commissions has no affect on the cost of air travel. The reality is that taking away those revenues from agencies has a negative impact to the traveler. The agencyapostrophes loss is passed along to travelers in the form of fees imposed for transactions handled by the agent. Fees have suddenly become a fact of life in booking travel with a travel agent.

So, why even use a travel agent if the airlines will not subsidize them? Why not book travel via the Internet or go directly to the airline, hotel or car rental company? For one thing, the travel agent is a one-stop shopping experience. The voice you hear on the telephone represents an unbiased perception of what is available to you from thousands of different suppliers. If something happens to go wrong with any of your reservations, you have an advocate with a name, an ear to listen to you and a voice to call the supplier and work out the problems.

If you book a reservation via one of the Internet providers, you do not have that personal contact. I met a gentleman from California at a travel industry technology conference in San Diego last summer who had been booking airline tickets via the Internet for several months. He was familiar with how to navigate the sites in order to get decent fares and flight times. Unfortunately, he had just had a very bad experience, which he shared with everyone at our table during a luncheon. He had booked a round-trip flight with electronic tickets, from Los Angeles to Colorado Springs for himself and his wife. He received a confirmation number with his itinerary. When he and his wife arrived at the airport, the gate agent informed him that he only had one ticket, for himself. He showed his confirmation number and itinerary, with his and his wifeapostrophes names. The agent reiterated there was no ticket for his wife and he would have to buy a ticket and take it up later with his travel agent. It cost him $1200 on the spot to get a seat for his wife. When he attempted to clear it up with the Internet provider, he received an e-mail message stating that it was his problem because their records indicated he had only booked one ticket. The final frustration was that he had no one to contact by telephone because there was no telephone number to call.

The lesson is that Internet service for travelers wishing to book tickets on line is still in development. If you use one of these providers, be sure you have plenty of time to navigate the site. Verify that the provider has a good back-up system (i.e., personalized e-mail, round-the-clock telephone service available when things go wrong on the road) in case you discover a mistake. Make sure you are aware of any added costs that may show up on your credit card.

Travel agents have access to lower-than-rack rates at hotels worldwide. Often, they have access to blocked hotel space and can find you a room when the hotel reservations agent tells you there are none available. Agents can also translate the intricacies of fare structures into terms you can understand. Most people think of fares as simply first class, business class and economy; but there can be up to 40 different fares offered on any given flight. In coach, there are various levels of fares. Itapostrophes nice to have someone explain the difference between a "Y", "K" or "B" fare, in addition to the reason why a Delta fare may be lower than a United fare for the same destination. An agent can tell you about a special offer from a low cost carrier that might save you or your company a lot of money.

When your fare goes down after you buy your ticket, an airline will never call you and tell you your fare went down and you are due a refund. Large travel agencies have software that continually checks your reservation for a lower fare. When one is found, your agent calls you.

Finally, a travel agent can save you valuable time. A friend of mine experimented with calling several airlines to get quotes for a round trip flight from Denver to Minneapolis. The process took her over an hour, mostly due to on-hold time. She called United Airlinesapostrophe Premier Desk and was kept on hold for several minutes. During that time she nearly went crazy listening to "Rhapsody in Blue." Most travel agencies have voice mail messaging and rules about returning calls to customers in a short period of time. You will not find that service offered by an airline reservations system.

If you would like more information about how to get your moneyapostrophes worth in working with your travel agent, please contact me via e-mail.

Shannon Stewart is Vice President/Sales & Marketing for Professional Travel Corporation, Coloradoapostrophes largest travel management company. She is a former marketing manager for Walt Disney Resorts in California and was the editor of This Week Magazines in Hawaii. Her e-mail address is: shannon@ptc.usop.com.

Shannon Stewart is Vice President/Sales & Marketing for Professional Travel Corporation, Coloradoapostrophes largest travel management company. She is a former marketing manager for Walt Disney Resorts in California and was the editor of This Week Magazines in Hawaii. Her e-mail address is: shannon@ptc.usop.com.