Economic slowdown and airline consolidation have generated a trend that’s having an impact on the travel industry and businesses alike.
Culling from statistics from the Airlines Reporting Corp. in Arlington, Va., there was a drop of 30,026 in the number of bricks-and-mortar travel agencies last year — a 6.8 percent decrease from 1999, when there were 32,211 locations.
Despite the declining number of bricks-and-mortar agencies, there hasn’t been a notable exodus of travel agents from the industry.
“Considering the higher commissions they can earn from selling cruises, tours and other leisure products, more and more established travel agents are closing their retail shops to work at home,” says Donna Zabel, an Akron entrepreneur who, until last year, owned and operated Dreammaker Destinations in Munroe Falls.
Zabel says these independent contractors are relying on licensed travel host agencies to expedite their airline bookings and to handle administrative tasks such as accounting, invoicing and licensing. This enables independent agents to focus on selling and providing more personalized service to their clients. In turn, the host agency receives a commission split, typically 30 percent.
Last fall, after five years in the travel industry, Zabel decided she wanted to represent these free agents.
“As an agent, I’d worked with several bricks-and-mortar agencies and also with a host agency, and I kept imagining how I could do things differently to make things easier for the independents,” she says.
Last October, she purchased World Travel Management in Bellville. Since then, she’s expanded the host agency by 25 percent. Currently, she and her two full-time employees represent 41 independent travel-agent contractors across the nation.
“We capitalize on technology and the Internet to achieve a national presence, but we promote independent agents that are big on relationship marketing, fostering special relationships with their own clients,” says Zabel, the firm’s CEO.
Her independent agents — who are known by their individual company names and logos — benefit from her large supplier network.
“As a member of a larger organization like World Travel Management, they benefit from the higher commission structures we have with our suppliers,” Zabel says.
They also benefit from Zabel’s memberships in almost a dozen industry affiliations. Realizing that communication is crucial for independents, organizations such as National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (NACTA) and Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN) have beefed up their Web capabilities to keep members in touch with each other and apprised of industry developments. Zabel says her own site, www.worldtravelmgt.com, has also been a powerful tool in marketing World Travel Management and its independent agents.
Although some travel agencies work with outside salespeople, she says she’s the only true “behind-the-scenes” host agency within a 150-mile radius that’s “dedicated to supporting independent sellers of travel.”
Zabel says host agencies like hers also work with companies that appoint an in-house person to arrange corporate travel — an trend she says is catching on with big businesses. After all, why deal with a bricks-and-mortar agent with huge overhead and higher costs when you can have a virtual agent that provides personalized service and charges less? How to reach: World Travel Management (330) 686-2367 or (866) 257-8373; www.worldtravelmgt.com