Friday, January 30, 2009

Travel Agents

What they are, and as a protagonist.
By Pat Gulley

I’m a retired travel agent who has spent 40 years in the travel industry. I worked for two airlines and was a retail travel agent doing leisure and corporate when both were mandatory, but stayed in leisure when the business split. I also worked for a wholesaler. What’s the difference? Basically, the way travel is sold.

Corporate travel agents book business travelers: rarely more than an airline ticket, hotel and rental car. These are very fast bookings completed by the end of a call, and ready immediately to take another call. Airline reservations departments worked that way too. Many women with families like corporate because there are few worries to take home at night. Large corporate travel agencies were among the first to allow their agents to work from home, as long as they already had a home computer.

Wholesale travel companies create tours and packages, price them and then sell them to retail travel agents. Wholesalers publish those fabulous tour books travel agents hand out. At one time, many only sold through retail agencies, now they all have websites and you can buy direct. Whether to buy direct or contact a retail agency is a discussion for another blog. Would it interest you?

Leisure travel agents book vacations; everything from a short weekend jaunt to a long combination of tours or a ninety-day world cruise. At one time airline tickets were the backbone of their profits, but all that stopped when the airlines cut out commissions.
Needless to say, with my background it can’t be a stretch to see why the protagonist of my unsold novel is a travel agent. And since I worked for a world agency not a small mama/pop, I added in the problems that any ‘branch’ office has trying to make quotas and deal with problems when head office is thousands of miles away. Then introduce murder when downsizing is announced.

Travel agencies are governed by an organization called IATA. Its rules and regulations govern the operations of agencies and the qualifications of the agents, which includes who may or may not be a manager. If you deal with a travel agency, be sure they are members of IATA and the individual agent has an IATAN card.

I’ve read destination mysteries where the protagonist leads a tour and calls themselves a travel agent, when the description implies a tour escort. Escorts are hired by wholesalers to guide their tours and require certification too. An escort doesn’t have to have been a travel agent, but it sure helps. People who organize a travel group often called themselves the escort, but a more accurate title is group leader or coordinator.

Imagine my surprise when a literary agent’s rejection indicated that she didn’t think anyone but a diehard mystery reader would be interested in my protagonist because a travel agent wasn’t very interesting unless she was leading a tour to some exotic or interesting destination. Hmmm. We’re not supposed to argue with them no matter what they say, but the assumption that anyone can open a ‘shop’ and sell travel is a bad one. Or that the selling of travel doesn’t have as many fun, interesting or weird stories that a yarn, gift, doll, ceramics, or book store would have.

So, would a travel agent protagonist interest you? Are there travel related questions you’d like me to try and answer? NO, not where to find cheap airfares or hotels! My company closed 75 percent of its branch offices at the end of 2001 after the twin towers fell on our twin towers.


Joyce said...

I think a travel agent or even a tour escort as a protagonist would work well. You could take her all over the world, have her clients get murdered, deal with foreign authorities, etc. I think it would be very exciting.

My word verification is "nessies." Little baby Loch Ness Monsters?

Jennie Bentley said...

Tour escorts make wonderful protagonists. I've tried to sell my editor on a series, but she doesn't think it'll be worth her while. Funny, because other writers - Maddy Hunter comes to mind - seems to be doing just fine with the concept. And for the record (since I'm certified) the correct term is tour manager, not tour escort. To avoid the whole escort = sex connotation, you know.

I've worked in travel and tourism too, for a number of years. Airline, check. Travel agency, check. (Hotel, check. B&B reservations, check. Tourist information, check. Tour guide, check. Not the same thing as a tour manager, btw. Sightseeing tours. But I digress.)

Those of us who have ever been involved in it, know just how quirky and fun the travel industry can be. Many editors, though, like to keep their protagonists in one setting, and develop that setting. For cozies, that's especially true, since the small town (originally the English village) is such a big part of the genre. Having a protag who constantly changes venue, is off-putting to a lot of people. Or at least a lot of editors. Lyn Hamilton had that problem originally with selling her Lara McClintock series, I know.

It can be done, though. You just have to find an agent who believes in it, and an editor who feels the same. It's a hard sell, though. I know, because I've tried.

My word verification is 'arroe'. Reminds me of an episode of the PBS show 'Arthur,' where DW was pretending to be some sort of animal that made that noise. "Arroe! Arroe!" She got, IIRC, poison ivy from crawling around in the bushes...

Pat R. said...

Very interesting inside look into the travel biz, Pat. Thanks for sharing!

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Pat. I could really use a travel agent right about now. Book me to someplace warm and sunny. Tahiti sounds nice...

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi! SO fascinating..I think a travel agent would make a terrific character.

Certainly an amateur detective. And even--a spy.

And a lot of it is about access.

She/he can find out where people are traveling, and exactly when and how. She can place people in certain seats on airplanes. She could tell people that certain flights are not available. She can make people delayed or late by insisting there are no non-stop flights. She can bring people from all over the world into the same airport at the same time.

She can suspect everyone is meeting in--someplace--and get there herself.

I am stopping now, because I am talking myself into writing it myself...

xoxo! Hank

Joyce said...

Hank, I think you just came up with a new thriller plot!

Kaye George said...

Thanks for this inside look, Pat! I've used both corporate and personal travel planners and I'm sure the personal business is MUCH more demanding/stressful/baldness-inducing. Sounds like fertile ground for mystery to me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pat, Nice blog! Yes, I think a travel agent, even one that is not traveling would be a very interesting protag. If we listened to every agent or editor out there, we'd just give up writing.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, Joyce, I've been thinking about it ever since I wrote that...sigh. Hmm.

So, Pat? What did you decide?

xo Hank

stuckinmypedals said...

I think a travel agent would be an excellent protagonist. Each time I visit my travel agent, I get a good chuckle from the questions I overhear other travel agents are asked by their clients. Sometimes I intentionally arrive early at her office just to people watch.

Anonymous said...

Hank and Joyce,
I think I should have replied to your posts as soon as I saw them. I'm afraid an agent really has no capability to do the things suggested. If she seat assigns if is from a blank seat chart and she never knows who is sitting where except her own clients, and that is strictly in individual PNRs not listed on the chart. She has no access to anyone except her own clients--not even the clients of her agency unless the agent booking that person shows her the PNR. Not even airline reservations agents have that access.
So, let's say an agent gets a request for a group and everyone must come from all over the world and they will all come into one airport. You have to have access to an airline computer and see the thousands of flight schedules to realize how difficult it would be to get everyone there at the same time. Most wholesalers have very specific times that you have to arrive on day of departure in order to get a transfer to the first hotel, or they simply say no transfers unless you are on their group flight.

Joyce said...

Pat, keep in mind that in fiction you can stretch the truth a bit. Look at all the police procedure in books that is wrong. Some bugs me, some doesn't. It's the perception that it COULD work that way that the reader cares about.

Joyce said...

Keep in mind with my last comment that I'm at the point where if an agent or editor wants something changed, I'm going to say "how fast do you want it done?" Unless it's something completely out of character, or so bizarre that I can't write it, I'm going to make the change.

Vivian Childs said...

I love the idea of a travel agent/protagonist and would certainly want to read such a book.

Mary Garrett said...

It sounds like an interesting premise to me -- I have read successful mysteries involving retired teachers in cooking contests, knit shops, restaurants, book stores . . . . Surely there is at least as much potential in travel!
I just read an interview with Angela Lansbury that _Murder She Wrote_ became more interesting when she insisted they move some of the episodes out of Cabot Cove. Your protagonist has that opportunity.

Anonymous said...

As to a travel agent being able to manipulate seat on an airplane, I'd fear that the entire airline industry would ban me from ever flying again. And The International Association of Travel Agents would post my picture in the post office and offer a hefty reward.
But, I agree, have an editor ask for a change and my response could/will be 'How Many'.

Sam said...

I agree that a travel agency or other travel related setting would be a great for mysteries. I also think writers should make every effort to ensure accuracy concerning the setting and common know procedures for their setting.
I'm not inclined to give to much consideration to literary license.

I like all the esoteric information, and the accuracy is important.

Ann Busiek said...

I am also a former travel agent and I agree that that kind of office setting is no different than the many others I've read. There is just as much drama and competition there as in any other office setting. What it offers is knowledge in travel specific areas, like customs, schedules, and little bits of info we pick up from traveling or talking/communicating with others all over the planet.

Justine S. said...

I agree with Ann B. You can find drama in just about any kind of office! I think your idea for a book and the inside look into the industry would be fascinating.