INDSUurSve Ty RY
By Michele McDonald
JUST A DOZEN YEARS
ago, airlines referred to
their “travel agent partners” without irony, or at
least not much irony.
The partnership was
lopsided, but it was real.
Airlines and agents together navigated the uncharted waters of deregulation. Agents looked
after the customers while
airlines experimented with new marketing ploys.
Aided by the concurrent growth of
computerized reservations systems,
agents took on the servicing of corporate America’s travel needs, as well.
In 1995 came the first of the airline
commission cuts, and over the
next few years, the base rate for
most airlines went to zero.
The ideal of partnership has
taken a bit of a beating, but the
idea is very much alive. In the
new era, partnership remains
the most sought-after quality in
travel agents’ relationships with
‘WORK WITH ME’
Mike MacNair, the president
and chief executive of MacNair
Travel Management, described
suppliers who get the concept:
“They understand my business
plan, where I want to go, and
they lobby hard to be a part of
Part of MacNair’s business
vision includes jettisoning the “travel
agency” label. He calls his Alexandria,
Va.-based company a “travel and logistics consulting firm.” He is more
consultant to his clients than agent
for his suppliers. As such, he seeks out
suppliers that will do what it takes.
“I want more waivers and favors and
creativity, out-of-the-box solutions.
I know the suppliers I want to work
with,” he said. “I know who’s empowered to make business decisions.”
It’s a two-way street, of course. “I
don’t expect a ton of respect if I only
give them one booking,” MacNair
said. But in a partnership, “if I do well,
they take care of me.”
Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J.,
wants suppliers to understand what
she does for them and respond accordingly.
“I have a former travel agent friend
who went to work for a supplier that
hates travel agents,” she said. The
company seeks direct bookings so it
won’t have to pay a commission, and
Hirleman said that makes no economic sense.
“Time is money,” she said. “If I send
you a client, I have qualified that client. You don’t have to sit there, checking on their budget, whether they’ve
been to the destination before, how
often they’ve been there.”
Hirleman believes suppliers should
take a look at where direct bookings
and agency bookings fall within their
cancellation rates and their customer
satisfaction rates. “A customer who
has booked direct might have second
thoughts, and a customer who wasn’t
properly qualified won’t be satisfied,”
If suppliers take a hard look at what
a good agent does, they may see that
the commission is well worth it.
“As a business person, I understand
selling direct. But if suppliers are go-
ing direct just to save the commission,
that’s not making money.”
Sometimes, she said, direct booking makes eminent sense. Cruise lines
are smart to have a booking agent on
board to offer terrific discounts on a
passenger’s next cruise, so long as it
is booked onboard. “That’s the best
time to grab someone, while they’re
still onboard having a great time,” she
said. “I can’t get to him until he’s already home.”
A true supplier partner will credit
the travel agent who originally qualified and booked the passenger, she
said. Hirleman also believes that if a
travel agent made sure the customer
was on the right ship, the cruise line
should acknowledge that.
SUPPORT, SUPPORT, SUPPORT
A theme that runs through
many conversations about the
supplier-agency partnerships is
“support.” Without it, partners
can’t be partners.
Anne Marie Moebes founded
Curves Travel, which treats every location of Curves, the popular women’s fitness studios, as
Although Curves Travel is
relatively new, Moebes has been
in the business a long time, as
an ASTA staff member and as
a marketing executive with the
Travelsavers consortium. Over
the years, “a lot of things have
changed, but the partnership
aspect hasn’t,” Moebes said.
“Suppliers need to see agents as their
But many suppliers have been
forced to cut costs, and that has left a
gap when it comes to providing marketing support.
Even though we live in an electronic
age, “you still need to provide some
printed collateral materials ... . You
still need to have salespeople whom
agents can call on,” Moebes said.
MacNair said he wants sales reps
to respect the fact that he is running