Are we just sellers of travel?
By Shebby Lee

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Like any dedicated travel professional, I make an effort to read at least part of all the trade publications that cross my desk or land in my email box. The danger of this, of course, is that occasionally I read something that really gets my dander up.


Do you think "selling travel" an accurate description?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

One such item was a line I read recently in an Arnie Weissmann opinion piece in Travel Weekly decrying the proven fact that young people are not attracted to careers selling travel. Although his point was the declining number of younger people in an aging pool of travel agents — a universal problem that happens to be of interest to me — I instead zeroed in on the phrase "selling travel." In fact, I was stunned by it. I'm not a travel agent, but I wondered, is that the business I'm in: selling?

I have always seen my job as making happy memories for my clients; creating unique and memorable travel experiences they can't find anywhere else. Selling is something altogether different and — frankly — distasteful, at least to my artistic nature. It smacks of the miserable Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Does anybody actually know what Willy Loman sold? Does it matter?

To me this has nothing to do with another current issue in the news: the critical Woman's Day exposé of travel agents that raised such a ruckus in the world of social media. Everybody got a great deal of publicity out of it, and it seems travel agents acquitted themselves well.

But does the world consist of just buying and selling? Whatever happened to serving the public's need to recreate, to learn and understand through experiencing a destination or journey?

The argument can be made that all my creative tour planning is just so much wasted effort if nobody buys the tour. But both the Weissman column and the Woman's Day brouhaha imply that travel agents could be selling widgets for all they care; the point being that selling is the motivating factor, not the product — or dare I say, service.

As editor of Travel Weekly, Weismann is of course an advocate for the industry in general, and travel agents in particular. I like his use of the term "travel counselor" to describe the role of a travel agent. In fact, it accurately describes much of the work tour operators do for our clients. But the very fact that he feels the need to defend them indicates that something is going on that is not entirely positive.

No one needs reminding that the travel industry has undergone a sea change over the past few decades, and the probability that it will continue is pretty high. Airline commissions have vanished and commissions for all travel products have been dramatically restructured — usually downward. But opportunities are still there for those willing to work, and I for one am enthusiastic about new business models that are developing to fill the void.

Travel agents who relied heavily on airline commissions in the past are now looking at products, such as tour packages, that they never would have considered previously. There are entirely new job descriptions such as home-based travel agents, and new travel businesses. These new alliances are strengthening the travel industry and, in some cases, turning former order-takers into travel planners.

It is an exciting time to be in the travel business, even for an old-timer like myself (36 years). The challenge is keeping ahead of the curve while still providing a needed service for a living wage.

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA's The Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theater and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an admiral in the Nebraska Navy.