This week's controversy about an article in the online version of Woman's Day originally titled "10 Things Your Travel Agent Won't Tell You" (which was then retitled "9 Things Your Travel Agent Won't Tell You") once again demonstrates the often shocking lack of knowledge by consumer magazines and the writers they hire about the travel agency trade.
Fortunately with help of hundreds of travel agents; top travel executives like Vicki Freed, Roger Block, Jackie Friedman, John Lovell and Barry Liben; and intrepid journalists like our own Theresa Norton Masek and Mimi Kmet, the entire affair is turning out to be a positive for the trade. Woman's Day editors have apologized to travel agents, have reedited the article and say they will highlight travel agent services in the October issue of Woman's Day magazine and a story in December on the online Woman's Day. They also vow to work closely with such travel agency organizations as ASTA.
Travel agents reacted swiftly to the slight, which I first found out about in a Facebook post by Stacy Small of Elite Travel International. Travel executives like Freed from Royal Caribbean; Block, Friedman, Lovell and Liben, all from Travel Leaders Group companies; and John Pittman of ASTA all wrote letters complaining about the article to the editors of Woman's Day.
From our team, Theresa and Mimi wrote about travel agent reaction and travel industry reaction to the Woman's Day piece. Theresa also wrote an excellent TravelPulse.com article calling into question the sourcing of the article when she interviewed one of the agents supposedly quoted in it (who is now a part-time agent and didn't even remember being interviewed or saying what the article says she said). There were numerous inaccuracies and errors that clearly demonstrate a lack of knowledge (and possibly bias) by both the writer of the piece and the editors publishing it.
Sadly the negative view of travel agents shared by some consumer publications isn't all that new. Indeed, the piece recalled a similar article (with the same headline) written a few years back in the now-defunct Smart Money magazine. We've just become spoiled in recent years because a number of articles have been published online and in print that have had a positive view of travel agents.
These articles praising agents were eagerly welcomed by the agency trade, which had become far more used to editorial content that either predicted their demise or put them in the category of a dead profession. We in the travel industry know that's far from the case, yet we still have to guard against consumer opinion being swayed by inaccurate portrayals of what travel agents do and how they provide amazing benefits to their customers.
Indeed, I've developed by own "elevator" speech whenever confronted by someone who thinks travel agents no longer exist or don't provide a valuable service to their clients. Beyond the mere fact that I work for a series of successful travel agent-focused publications, I cite U.S. Labor Department statistics that show roughly 85,000 people describe themselves as travel agents. I then point out that according to recent surveys roughly half of that number are actually working remotely (very often at home), which is why some people who no longer see a physical agency storefronts believe there are no travel agents today.
I then point out that travel agents continue to book the vast majority of vacations for Americans, including over 80 percent of cruises (for most lines that I know at least); over 85 percent of tours and wholesale packages; and well over 50 percent of all hotels (and even higher in the luxury space). The clincher: Agents continue to book over half of all airline seats, despite the efforts of airlines to have their customers go direct. Indeed, according to the most recent statistics, agents in the U.S. book roughly $100 billion in travel annually. So they are certainly far from dead according to numbers.
I also tell friends who don't use travel agents that they can get far better deals, enjoy many more amenities, and discover more options than they even imagined would exist for their vacations if they book through an agent. Do I still get some negative reactions? Sure! People like to believe they know more than true professionals like travel agents. They also mistakenly believe that working with an agent will cost more (a common misperception) or that they will get a better deal by going to a supplier directly or through an online website. I just laugh when I hear this and tell them to go on their merry way, but if they find the error of their ways to all me and I'll give them three great travel agents to choose from.
As I wrote earlier in this column, however, the real news is how swift and unified the travel agency and travel industry profession has been in reacting to the Woman's Day article and setting things straight. Travel agents no longer just take it on the chin. Instead, they fight back when they are so unfairly maligned!
James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director of travAlliancemedia, which publishes TravelPulse.com, Agent@Home magazine and Vacation Agent magazine.