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The Travel Agent: Fulfiller of Dreams

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In the days when travel was a once in a lifetime event, the travel agent was quite literally a "fulfiller of dreams" the one who made such lifelong ambitions of traveling to exotic locales reality. Even today, when travel is more of an annual rite than an extraordinary event, most agents still see their function as fulfilling dreams for, in essence, agents sell an experience in order to satisfy client expectations.

To most people, the travel agent personifies the travel industry. The most visible segment of the industry, the agent is actually the last link in an intricate chain of facilities and services. To travel suppliers like airlines, hotels, car rental companies, tour operators, and the like, the agent is their retailer their distribution system to the public. The travel agency gives the suppliers local contact with the public that they could not afford on their own.

Many people confuse the "travel agent" with the "travel agency." The agent is essentially a counselor who deals directly with the prospective traveler (the client). In contrast, the agency is an entire business that performs various sales and marketing functions and administrative tasks. In small agencies, a single person can be the counselor as well as the owner/manager who also handles the business issues; the larger the agency, the more specialization. Some of the largest travel agencies that handle commercial travel (travel for business purposes) even employ a quality control coordinator, who acts as a liaison between client and agency.

The travel agent treads a fine line between supplier and client. While travel agencies are essentially (and legally) the "agent" acting on behalf of the travel suppliers (being paid a commission each time they sell a company's service), travel counselors see their role as providing an objective (nonbiased) referral service for their clients. Though there are often monetary incentives (in the form of override commissions) to book a certain airline, tour company, car rental firm, and so on, their primary concern is to recommend the one that will best satisfy their clients' price and service wants because, as agents, they depend so much on repeat and referral business. Unlike the real estate agency that sees its client once in five or ten years or a lifetime or the fast food restaurant that sells a standardized product, the travel agent services (more than sells) a client once, twice, or perhaps ten times in a single year. Though today's travelers may be more sophisticated and experienced, there is still a lot of hand holding by their travel agents, who become trusted professionals much like their doctors, lawyers, or accountants.

Agents generally feel a tremendous sense of responsibility about making everything go perfectly, by tying all the myriad details of a trip together. "There are times when I am at home at night and I go over in my mind all the details of the trip," said Daniela Kelly, a New York agent. "Sometimes I give my home number, like when one of my clients had a trip with 20 different flights."

A mistake like bringing the client back to the wrong airport or timing a connection badly can have disastrous consequences. Even if the agent performs perfectly, he or she is only an intermediary; the tour company or some other supplier can make a mistake and the client can still hold the agent accountable (and liable).

Travel agency work affords an opportunity to become a professional with little or no advanced schooling. The work involves considerable problem solving ability as well as the ability to deal with details and organize them. People contact (face to face and by telephone) is the essence of the job; in fact, contacts (with both clients and suppliers) are as important to professional success as product knowledge. Having contacts inside travel companies themselves enables the agent to free up space at a hotel that is "booked solid," upgrade an airline ticket, or get extra or special service for a VIP. Nor is the client contact merely casual. "You have to involve yourself with the customer," reflected Jaime Patxot, a New York based agent. "You dig into their personal life in order to come up with appropriate recommendations. We are psychiatrists sometimes."

Though personal service is still the essence of the business, computers are becoming fundamental to operations. Well over 95 percent of the more than 32,000 appointed travel agencies are now automated with airline reservations systems.

No day is the same; each day presents new challenges. Indeed, deregulation (the lifting of government imposed rules on business operations among airlines and agencies) has introduced an entirely new element to the business negotiations with travel suppliers on rates and commissions and even services.

But once inside, even after only two years of experience, an individual will find that there is enormous opportunity to rise. Mobility is more limited in small agencies, but large agency organizations offer all the career paths of any big business.

The travel agency industry is still very entrepreneurial. Ambitious agents who reach their heights at a small agency frequently go out on their own or move into senior management at other agencies.

The smallest agencies generally have one to four people owner, manager, counselor, and bookkeeper or clerk; there also may be some commissioned outside sales agents. Medium sized agencies may have a groups specialist, a commercial department, and counselors who specialize in destinations (such as the Caribbean, or Europe) or in cruises. The largest agencies are organized much like other big businesses, with personnel, operations, and marketing and sales departments; there also may be a sophisticated mailing department, a resident computer specialist, and training and development experts. The largest agencies may have several different businesses, including retail travel, corporate travel, incentive travel, convention and meeting planning, group tours, wholesale travel, travel school, and even package express, and thus require many more clerical, secretarial, and other sup port people. Indeed, one "mega agency" lists 130 different job titles.

The pace of work is usually hectic, sometimes frantic. 'There are certain days when you have the feeling of 'burnout,' when you get ten people in a row rushing in asking for a 'deal' to Florida. It gets to you," reflected Kelly.

The daily rush is intensified whenever there is an airline strike, a natural disaster, or some other event that would necessitate changing travel arrangements.
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