Hackerfest Provides Offline Forum

Issues affecting travel agency industry discussed at unusual Seattle gathering

By: Robert Carlsen

SEATTLE Travel agency survival in poor economic times and an ongoing fear of flying, especially to international destinations, are among the top issues most important to travel agents.

That conclusion was among the myriad of topics discussed at the third Hackerfest here last week, sponsored by the members of the online e-mail forum, Travel Agent Digest.

TAD, founded in 1998 by Julian Cook, was organized “because travel agents did not have a place to call home,” according to its Web site, www.travelhacker.net. Its moderator is Thomas Speight, owner of All About Travel in Spokane, Wash. Online, members can discuss issues, kvetch, rant, ask questions about suppliers, hotels or services, and find out what’s happening to other agents across the country.

The Hackerfest was organized by the agent members and hosted by Sheila Hyman, owner of Tanforan Travel in San Bruno, Calif.

The weekend event featured a breakfast seminar by Holland America Line’s Dave Stockert; a success story panel; a seminar on cruise sales and another on selling up, not down; a session on selling air consolidators; an update on CRS issues by consultant Walter Gay; a talk on “Why Consortia?” by WESTA’s general manager Mike Estill; and the final-day roundtable discussion on the most important issues facing travel agents.

It was the latter session that got the members fired up, even very early on a Sunday morning.

Agents responded that the bad economy is affecting certain parts of the country differently, with Western agents doing a little better than counterparts in the East; the airport security hassles, as well as the poor service aboard airplanes these days, are contributing to the measurable drop in the number of air passengers; and there seems to be an ongoing search for “safe” destinations.

Domestic drive markets are increasing, as everyone knows, but the agents said that it’s hard to make a living selling Branson packages.

Promotion & Flexibility

Other issues that are important to agents included the need for visibility and promoting travel agents and their services. Members responded that the public’s perception is “we’re gone.”

Also, agencies must come up with new business models to reflect the changing times. Flexible business plans are needed because agents agreed that a lot of events are out of their control. Agents should re-train not only their staffs but their clients as well, and managing client and supplier relationships are more important than ever.