Written By: Tom Ogg
The current effort to rebrand travel agents as travel advisors is taking an interesting turn in nomenclature. There are really numerous reasons why, but I will start with the most obvious.
Whether you call yourself an agent, consultant, professional, advisor or an MME (Memory Making Expert) as Patty Kollar CTA of PackNTravel does, it is really the client who determines what you are.
As Samarah Meil, of Amarillo Travel Network in Amarillo, Texas says “I honestly am great with being known as THE TRAVEL AGENT to work with! I know it is trendy to use other names, such as Advisor, Consultant, Travel Junkie, Travel Ninja, Travel Designer, etc – but in the end, I really think most people just think of us as a Travel Agent and not in a negative way.”
Geoff Millar, Owner of Ultimate All-Inclusive Travel Inc shares “We still use travel agent for one main reason, our advertising. We did quite a bit of testing using travel consultant, travel advisor and a few other titles but we found that with all our advertising, Travel Agent still got the most response, almost 2 to 1 over the use of other titles. We also found that the quality of the responses or leads we received remained high quality.”
The Agency Law Factor
Using the term “Travel Agent” is an important part of Agency Law that dictates how travel agents present themselves to consumers. If you are unfamiliar with Agency Law, here is a video tutorial that introduces you to some of the more important concepts of it.
As you can see Agency Disclosure has a huge impact on your fiduciary obligation to the Principal in the transaction you are processing. If the client thinks that you are acting on their behalf solely and you fail to do your agency disclosure, you may well end up being help to a fiduciary standard for both the supplier and the client. This is indeed a tenuous position to be in.
In an article entitled “Are You An Agent For A Supplier Or Fiduciary For The Client?” (Travel Market Report, July 7th, 2017) written by Paul Ruden, ASTA’s executive vice president for legal and industry affairs (now retired) shares details on how travel agents must disclose their agency relationship with the principle in a timely manner so that the client has an opportunity to cancel if they chose to do so. The disclosure should be done in writing and also continued in subsequent correspondence. The article is well worth the read to confirm your obligation as a travel agent.
It is crystal clear that referring to yourself as anything other than a travel agent may cause confusion for the client who might believe that a consultant is consulting on their behalf or that an advisor is advising on their behalf. A travel agent is acting on behalf of a Principle and using the term travel agent is on its face, agency disclosure.
Let’s look at the definition of the four terms being discussed as a business style. Here are the rawest forms of the meaning of each.
Agent: a person who acts on behalf of another person or group.
Consultant: a person who provides expert advice professionally.
Professional: engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.
Advisor: a person who gives advice in a particular field.
You can see that all four seem applicable to travel agents. But wait, in an article entitled “What’s in a Name? A Travel Agent by Any Other Name” (Travel Market Report, September 29th, 2017) Paul Ruden shares that by calling yourself anything other than a travel agent you may be causing the consumer to think that you are their fiduciary and thereby cancel any legal protection afforded to you by doing your agency disclosure to the client.
The American Bar Association makes the obligation for agency disclosure to take place in order to avoid the pitfall of dual fiduciary quite clear in an article entitled “Travel Agents: Their Role and Liability”
The article shares that most U.S. courts are now holding travel agents to a fiduciary standard, especially when leisure travel is involved and that the only way to avoid it is through agency disclosure. “However, as long as the customer is informed of the identity of the principal (e.g., the cruise line, tour company, hotel, etc.), the travel agent will not be held individually liable for a breach of contract by such disclosed principal. This legal concept of the disclosed agent of a disclosed principal is important for the travel agent to understand and explain to consumers so that the travel agent is able to avoid liability for breaches of duty or contract by travel suppliers.”
The Clumsy Truth About Disclosure
Let’s substitute “Travel Advisor” with another agent type and now consider “Real Estate Advisor.” The first assumption is that a real estate advisor doesn’t necessarily sell real estate (that is what a real estate agent does) but offers real estate advice, presumably for people considering either buying, selling or managing real estate. Since they are acting as an advisor, they must have a fiduciary relationship with you as the advisee. Here is what a disclosure statement from a real estate advisor might sound like.
“Yes, I am your real estate advisor. While I am actually a real estate agent working for my principle, as a fiduciary, which is the seller of the home you are interested in, I only have the obligation to be fair and honest to you as the buyer.”
You can easily see how clumsy this disclosure becomes. And, failure to disclose that they are acting as an agent for the Principle would easily put them in jeopardy of a breach of fiduciary claim should the house turn out to be faulty with no disclosure.
Kim DalPonte of Pixie Dust & Paradise Travel, Inc. shares “I have always called myself a Travel Consultant, but I say I own a Travel Agency (not a Travel Consulting Firm). However, no matter what I call myself, all of my clients, and the general population say, and relate to Travel Agent!”
“Yes we use travel counsellor on our business cards but I still say travel agent. It is just to get the point across that I do not just sell you a trip. I do not charge you a service fee and I will give you ideas on where to go, I will match up your interests with a resort to get a great fit. I will try to make it a seamless experience from the time you leave the house and are transported to the airport to when you come home and have after travel issues. So although I am a travel agent and will sell you a trip, we do so much more.” says Beth Lariviere with EA Travel and Tours in Ontario, Canada.
Mitch Krayton CTA of Krayton Travel in Aurora, Colorado asks “Do you sell your advice only? Then Travel Advisor is a good fit. Travel Professional says nothing about you and we all are professing travel. We get paid mostly by suppliers as their agents which is why Travel Agent works so well. We have no problem with insurance agent, real estate agent, do we? We sell for a living. Instead of hiding the obvious truth of what we do with a synonym no one understands. Be proud that you sell value to you travelers and that you have been chosen as an agent for travel by your suppliers.”
The Case For Being Called Something Other Than a Travel Agent
In an article entitled “This Is Why Travel Agents Want To Be Called Travel Advisors” Christopher Elliott, a reputable consumer advocate, tries to make the case for the change of nomenclature from travel agent to travel advisor. While his article is interesting, it lacks any understanding of the evolution of travel professionals over the last two decades. He equates a travel agent as someone who is “just looking for a commission check” and that there is “a significant part of the travel agency community that wants to turn the clock back to 1990, to the days when they could earn a comfortable living with a phone call and a few keystrokes.”
The truth is that during the 1990s retail brick and mortar travel agencies were going bankrupt and closing in never-seen-before numbers. This was the result of the airline ticket commissions being first capped and eventually eliminated. I have been in the travel industry full time since 1968 and I can personally tell you that there was never a time when travel agents “earn a comfortable living with a phone call and a few keystrokes.”
Another truth is that while travel agents are agents of the Principle supplier, agents do everything conceivable to make the client’s travel experience as positive as possible. This includes full product exposure whether it is a cruise, resort, tour, all-inclusive, or any other travel niche out there. They share their personal knowledge, expertise and experience with clients. They offer clients extensive support and services including matching the client with the perfect vacation choice, arranging detailed travel itineraries paving the way for a smooth journey and acting as the safety backup while the client is traveling.
In the “How To Tell If Your Agent is an Advisor” section of the article Mr. Elliott includes the following signs indicating you are working with an advisor:
They Do More Than Book Travel: Travel agents have been doing this since their inception. In fact, today’s travel professional is going well beyond the “just booking travel” stage.
They Specialize: I am sure it is safe to say that pretty much all travel agents specialize in niches that allow them to develop expertise that is in demand with the traveling public. Never before has it been easier to reach niche oriented clients within a travel agent’s specific specialization.
They Offer Concierge Services: My long time friend Sandy Elson MCC , Owner of Your Cruise Concierge shares “I opened “Your Cruise Concierge” in 2004 as a cruise-only home based travel agency. Having been a travel agent since 1985, I knew that times had changed and I had to offer clients more than they could get on their own. With so much information available on the internet, I wanted to enhance my service as not only a “travel agent” but a “cruise concierge.” I offered services that were not available on the internet or from other travel agencies. including a menu of services, such as making dinner reservations in pre-cruise or post-cruise cities, or on the ships themselves. I researched and printed information about each port stop, including sightseeing suggestions and dining suggestions, which went far beyond the cruise lines’ information about the ports. The most important service I could offer was to keep myself informed and experienced about every cruise line, and every ship on that line, to better serve my clients. I became the “go-to” travel agent for my niche specialties, including family reunion cruises and luxury cruises. This knowledge and experience stands as the concierge feature of my service that my clients valued the most.”
They Charge a Consulting Fee: While many agents do charge a consulting fee, this hardly qualifies anyone as a travel agent, consultant, professional or advisor.
So Are You a Travel Agent, or What? As Teri Hurley, Owner of Endless Love Travel in Georgetown, Texas says “Whether we like it or not, the public recognition remains attached to Travel Agent. I personally feel if you are doing your job correctly you are a consultant first, an advisor second and agent last, as you move through the client process to close your sale. However, strictly for marketing purposes, travel agent remains the go to tag.”
Vicki Scheck of ScheckTrek Travel in Pasadena, California shares “We all know that there is a movement underway to call ourselves almost anything other than travel “agents.” In order for the title to carry any weight, however, we would need to get behind that phrase “call ourselves.” I can call myself the Queen of Sheba, but does it mean anything? Anyone with a host agency can call her or himself a travel advisor and feel superior to the other poor soul who only calls her or himself a travel agent. And yet, the experienced travel agent might be in the Million-Dollar Club, and the new travel advisor might not have made her or his first booking yet.”
In the end, what you choose to call yourself is up to you. I kind of like the idea of calling yourself your specific niche “River Cruise Specialist”, “Hawaii Specialist” or “African Safari Specialist” which really helps clients identify what you do and who you are.