Aren’t You Superfluous, or What?

25 October 10

Inevitably, the first question I get asked at parties when I tell people I’m a travel consultant is: “Didn’t the internet put you guys out of business?” and then: “Wait — is that the same thing as a travel agent?”

1988 was the year I became an entrepreneur. I founded two companies. The first was a knock-off Purina Puppy Chow outfit. I’d won a year’s supply of dog food at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds by filling out an entry form and dropping it in a fish bowl when my parents weren’t looking. Because an adult terrier can only eat so much puppy chow in one day (five bowls with a pine cone garnish), I decided to repackage the food in brown paper lunch bags and sell it door-to-door. I made Print Shop labels with a clip art dog barking “Ciao.” I thought it sounded exotic, the way gelato sounds more exotic than ice cream. I tried to pick the most Italian looking clip art dog. The best I could find was a black and white Golden Retriever in a bandanna.

I took Ciao to the streets, biking in a Springdale sales radius of about 800 yards. When someone opened the door I’d say “Ciao!” in a cloying Punky Brewster voice and produce dog food from behind my back. Very seldom was I treated like a Chinatown handbag salesman. No one asked about protein content or synthetic additives. This was the late 80’s. Moms used Aqua Net and let their babies teeth on lawn darts, you know?

After I made about $20 on Ciao, I grew bored. Dry dog food just wasn’t galvanizing anymore. I decided to be the neighborhood travel agent. Because we didn’t have one.

As a go-getter, another favorite pastime was phoning 1-800 numbers and requesting brochures. I always made sure to call in late May to guarantee I received a lot of mail at summer camp: catalogs from JC Penny and the Graceland souvenir store, marketing kits from Jamaica. I pored over the Newport News fall line of bolero jackets when I should have been learning how to tack a Sunfish.

My travel agency business plan was really simple: I’d order a ton of brochures from various tour vendors and tourism boards, smack a label on them with my name and phone number, and then distribute them in mailboxes. Neighbors would flip through the marketing materials and forfeit self-sufficiency in favor of the expertise of an eleven year old who had only really been to Myrtle Beach and gave vacation counsel out of a tool shed. I stored extra mailers in my father’s Craftsman chest.

I only ever got one phone call — a woman who had received my Club Med brochure and wanted more information — and in a moment of panic (was Club Med a sandwich?) said I was in sixth grade and hung up.

Now, at age 33, when I’m asked at parties about the viability of travel agents in the age of internet autonomy, I explain the difference between an agent and a consultant. An agent is no better than a kid collecting brochures next to power drills. An agent merely regurgitates pat copy, pedals a product second-hand. If you’re looking for an agent, then might I interest you in this here dog food?

A travel consultant offers invaluable knowledge rooted in first-hand familiarity. I develop personal relationships with my clients that counter the uncaring anonymity of an online booking engine. I’ve actually been to the places I recommend. I’ve read the guidebooks. Travel consultants are successful in spite of this tired economy because they know how to focus on what the internet can’t possibly deliver. We’re real people with valid passports, physical store fronts.

In a recent issue of Travel Weekly, columnist Richard Turen noted that “One hotel chain, years ago, was actually using prisoners on work release to handle phone reservations.” Aside from the occasional traffic ticket (one, embarrassingly enough, issued by a cop on a horse), I don’t have a history of run-ins with the law. My list of excursions doesn’t include being bused out for road-side beautification. Wouldn’t you rather speak with someone reputable, someone you can meet in person?

You can trust a consultant. You can save time with a consultant. Maybe you’ve made an Excel spreadsheet of all the times of all the fireworks shows at Disney World, and graphed that data against the height requirements of Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and placed that graph alongside a Venn Diagram of value meals, but can you stomach staying on hold with the Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique, listening to the Country Bear Jamboree? And what if I told you’ve I’ve already drawn that Venn Diagram and paired it with a resort pool chart? How much is your time worth?

Poet John Keats was onto something when he wrote about the importance of a living hand: “See here it is—I hold it towards you.”

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