That is the number one prevailing question in the travel agency industry right now. Do we deserve to get paid for our time and expertise? Or should the general public expect us to give our consulting skills away for free?
Let's roll the clock back about 9 to 10 years ago. Some folks came into the travel planning industry and touted the idea that you should never have to pay any fees for booking hotels, airfare, car rentals etc. These new companies made it sound like you had been getting ripped off for years because you were walking into a travel agency office and sitting down with a real person, asking them questions, hearing their professional opinions and ideas and actually paying them a fee for that experience. Those new companies are what we refer to as OTA's in our industry. That stands for "Online Travel Agencies." The more famous OTA's are companies such as Expedia, Hotwire, Priceline and Orbitz. These OTA's made it sound like you didn't ever need anyone's professional advice because you could go to their site, see every hotel in every part of the world (or at least they want you to believe you can), see the lowest price and simply book it yourself and save a lot of money. This basically lumped everything every professional travel person had done for years into this idea that they were nothing but middle men/women and order takers. So you could now avoid the middle person and place the "travel order" yourself.
These OTA's did a great job at marketing. Their "no fee" ads were causing hoards of travelers to run from professionals and turn to their one-stop shop for booking vacations, business trips etc. Mom and pop travel agencies were closing right and left because fees were needed to maintain employees, pay for office overhead etc.
A new breed of travel professional was born out of the ashes and I am not sure the big OTA's saw what was coming. Professional travel agents were learning to evolve with the change in market and many changed their work environment to where they too could operate without passing along fees and just live on whatever hotels, car companies and tour operators were willing to pay in the way of commissions. That's correct...hotels, car companies and tour operators pay travel agents commission as a thank you for bringing clients their way. And guess what...the large OTA's get commissions too. They wanted you to think they were not a travel agent and you were cutting out the agent and therefore saving money, but guess what, they are middle people too and they get commissions and in many cases brow beat hotels and other travel related companies to give them even more than what most professionals would have ever received and then they turn around and kick some of it back to the consumer and call it "savings." You can imagine what that is doing to their relationship with hotels, resorts etc. But that is a story for another time.
Here we are now 9 to 10 years later and our industry is back stronger than ever and more and more travelers are turning to agents again because they are hearing that we no longer charge fees and they can still take advantage of our expertise, our experience and our relationships with key companies in the travel industry. And many have learned that when going through an OTA, you are taking on the role of the professional agent because YOU are selecting that hotel and YOU are choosing those flights and YOU are doing all of the research and YOU are left to deal with issues on YOUR own when you hit the "book now" button on their site.
So let's be clear of the difference between a professional and an OTA. A professional travel agent offers destination advice. They offer destination experience. They offer resorts that are vetted. They offer flights that actually exist with connections that make a vacation that much better. They offer great vacation value and experiences that make vacations memorable. They are trained and skilled in the art of travel planning. They are professional. OTA's are none of those...none.
And guess what...reading stuff on the internet no more makes you a professional travel consultant than does sleeping in a Holiday Inn Express. Reading things on the internet does not make someone a professional wedding planner or a professional interior designer or a professional style consultant etc. And almost every person understands that going to a professional and seeking consultation or help will most likely result in a fee to cover their time.
So again..yes, we get commission from companies, resorts, hotels, car companies and tour operators that we sell. But we don't make a dime when offering professional travel advice to someone who then takes our advice and goes and books things themselves. Not a dime...until now. That is officially changing as of the posting of this blog. My agents and I love what we do. We love planning awesome vacations for families and clients and seeing their pictures and hearing their awesome stories. But we can't spend the time and energy we need on our valued current clients when we are chasing down info for those possible new clients who just want our free advice and have no intention of booking through our agency. We can't afford to work pro bono. So any new client coming to us as of now will be paying a "plan to book fee" that will be discussed with the possible client upfront. Many agencies in our industry have already been charging for their skill and expertise and it is time every professional agent is recognized as being a professional. Professionals deserve compensation for their time.
Again...can someone go online and hit a "book now" button and do things themselves? Sure. Many do and will continue to do so. And they are on their own if things go wrong and if they made a poor vacation choice. But again, no one goes to a wedding planner and expects them to work for free and no one hires an interior designer and expects their advice and help for free. And so it is with us. No one should expect to call a travel agent and expect them to work for free. If you come to us and book your trip...we will discuss with you how that fee is applied, but coming to us and picking our brains for ideas and plans will cost you something if you take that advice and walk away with it.
So to fee or not to fee...that is no longer a question with my agents and agency.