Independent Agents Face Tough Choices
by Robin Amster

In today’s increasingly complex travel industry, independent agents are faced with a confusing array of business models. And the list of options is growing, according to Ann van Leeuwen, CTIE, vice president of the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA).

In a panel discussion yesterday at ASTA’s Global Convention in Miami, moderator Van Leeuwen said today’s independent contractors must choose from a set of “complex and overlapping options.”

“There are a lot of choices,” agreed panelist Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion. “The important thing is what’s  important to you, what kind of travel you sell, what kind of vendors you want to deal with.”

Panelists outlined the pros and cons of the choices for independent and home-based agents. These include: 1) affiliating as an agency with a traditional consortium or with a consortium like NEST, which focuses solely on home-based agents; 2) affiliating as an independent with a host agency, or 3) joining a franchise agency operation.

Home-based independent agents also might opt to join the staff of a traditional travel agency and continue working from home as agency employees

Consider your vendors
Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer of NEST, advised agents to look at who their top five vendors are when choosing an affiliation and business model. “Those vendors should be aligned with your host or consortium.”

Friedman said that host agencies and consortia give agents flexibility, while a franchise operation offers “branding in a box” but subjects agents to stricter contractual requirements.

Stephanie Lee, founder of Host Agency Reviews, a company she called the Yelp of host agencies, called the host agency option “a good fit for new agents.”

Independent agents also can opt to affiliate with several hosts for different aspects of their business. The beauty of this, Lee said, is that “you have an ala carte situation.” The “dark side” is that the arrangement might dilute the agent’s volume. “You’re not giving the host 100% of your bookings, so they won’t give you their all.”

Branding is critical
Regardless of their business model, all agents need a strong focus on education and branding, said Mazza.

Engaging with an industry association, as well as getting an industry certification, is a good move, but associations are not the same. “Find one that aligns with your business model,” she said.

Industry certification is also key and advantageous in several ways. Being listed as a specialist on a destination or tour op website is also a mechanism for lead generation, she added.

“Branding is everything,” Mazza added. An agent’s “brand” should be on everything agents send out and should be consistent in how it looks.

“It’s a reflection of who you are,” she said.



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