Bobbie Sylvester had been a home economics teacher in Salt Lake City until she decided to become a travel agent 20 years ago. "My best day as a home economics teacher wasn't as good as my worst day as a travel agent," she used to boast.
But now, with people and businesses pinching their travel pennies and with a big decline in the percentage of agency revenue from airline commissions - the agents' traditional bread and butter - hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the nation's 32,500 travel agencies are struggling to survive."It's tougher than ever," said Ms. Sylvester, president of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents. "What kills you is writing $59 tickets to Boise, because you don't make any money."
Travel agents earn a commission of about 10 percent on every airline ticket they sell. But with the growth of discount airlines and fare wars, that 10 percent is not as much as it used to be. In 1992, airline tickets accounted for 61 percent of travel agency revenues. Now it is thought to be closer to 50 percent and is expected to shrink further.
Much to the dismay of some travel agents, some of their services are being taken over by machines. A Florida company, for example, has installed video kiosks in more than 800 pharmacies to help travelers.
And another company says that within a year, it will place 1,000 machines in supermarkets where travelers can pick up tickets.
Many travel agents think they have been chosen as sacrificial lambs as airlines and other companies try to cut costs, even though agencies sell more than 80 percent of all airline tickets. Agents say the airlines have dropped hints that they intend to cut commissions by as much as one-fourth.
And they point to a recent move by almost 20 companies, including General Motors Corp. and Whirlpool Corp., to seek lower fares from airlines. Under the proposal, the companies would forfeit frequent-flier miles and would purchase tickets through a single clearinghouse, instead of through traditional travel agencies.
Four major travel agencies, including Carlson Travel Network and US Travel, earned less in air-fare commissions last year than in 1992, according to estimates by Travel Weekly magazine.
Four other giant agencies, including the 1,500 company-owned properties of American Express, barely exceeded 1992's air sales. And Rosenbluth International, another industry giant, recently laid off 200 employees, almost 7 percent of its payroll, blaming falling air fares in recent months.
Agency revenues could suffer even more if the Justice Department rules that "overrides" - cash bonuses that airlines give their best travel-agent customers - offer established carriers an unfair advantage over newer or smaller competitors.
Air-fare commissions are airlines' third-biggest expense, behind labor and fuel. Delta Air Lines recently stirred industry wrath by seeming to suggest that it would reduce the traditional 10 percent commission, perhaps to 7.5 percent, as part of its effort to slash expenses by almost 20 percent in the next three years.
While Delta subsequently denied any such intention, it did not rule out the possibility of someday making a change. Meanwhile, Dick Knodt, executive vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents, said that every 1 percent reduction in commissions could put 5,000 small travel agencies out of business.
At Odyssey Travel in West Chester, Pa., airline commissions have fallen about 35 percent over the last year. "This business has never been as tough as today," said Jutta Goss, the owner. "Everything has suddenly been turned upside down."
Industry woes are reflected in the record 2,820 travel agencies that last year defaulted on payments to the Airlines Reporting Corp., the industry clearinghouse that provides agents with tickets, or otherwise went out of business. The total was double that of five years earlier.
And many agents fear problems will be compounded by the growing use of self-service machines.
Docunet Inc., the San Francisco company that will install airline-ticket machines in supermarkets beginning in late October, says its machines will also eventually dispense cash and traveler's checks.
And the video kiosks, from the Automated Travel and Health Center, a travel agency in Tampa, Fla., display brochures, photographs and tour prices on color monitors and allow browsers to dial an 800 number for inquiries or to book trips or buy travel insurance.
Travel agencies will still collect a commission from sales made on some automated systems, but will have to pay a fee to the company that owns the machine. In the case of the video kiosks, Automated Travel receives a commission and pays the pharmacies 2 percent on sales and a monthly rental fee.
Individual Thomas Cook Travel agencies will receive commissions from a recently announced computerized speech-recognition system that will allow customers to book airline tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars over the telephone 24 hours a day.
But many travel agents, especially the small agencies that dominate the industry, fear that as automated ticketing spreads they will be bypassed.
To cushion the effect of lagging commissions, some agents are dusting off an old idea and charging their customers fees of $10 to $25 for time-consuming transactions like writing or reissuing low-cost airline tickets. Travel agents estimate that it costs them about $25 an air ticket.
"We have a $10 service charge per ticket on anything under $100," said Alice Lambie of Apex Travel Service in Brookfield, Wis. Other agencies charge as much as $300 for canceled bookings of elaborate itineraries.
Aware that they can no longer survive mainly by writing tickets, many agencies are emphasizing, as never before, a need to employ specialists on a wide range of travel destinations, from the Grand Ole Opry to the Great Barrier Reef.
Many others have developed specialties in niche markets by catering to seniors, art or music aficionados, honeymooners, or bird watchers. Some agencies specialize in renting apartments or villas for vacationers to Europe.
More than 800 travel agencies now sell cruises exclusively, and most other agencies now push cruises at every opportunity.
Travel agents typically receive a 12 percent commission to book a cruise, and unlike a discount airline ticket, cruises are not cheap. A cruise averages about $200 a day, per person, including round-trip air fare. Seven-day cruises to the Caribbean can easily cost $5,000 a couple.
"Twice a year we hold seminars where clients can come listen to officials," said Virginia Cobb of Cobb Travel in Birmingham, Ala. "We end up with many bookings. The last time we had 250 people attend, and 70 percent of them booked. A few years ago we had 85 people on a Cunard cruise to the Canary Islands."
Cruises are time consuming for agents, Ms. Cobb added, "but you can make good money selling them."
Another striking industry change is the speed with which many large travel agencies, with a preponderance of volatile business accounts, are now seeking more leisure customers.
These agencies include Uniglobe Travel International, with more than 1,000 franchise locations, which hopes to change its mix of 70 percent business travel and 30 percent leisure travel to a 50-50 split, largely by focusing on selling cruises. Northwestern Travel Service, a $305 million company, hopes to change its mix from 80 percent corporate to 60 percent.
"Rarely has major structural change come so fast and so furiously, with more on the way," said William Chiles, president of Hickory Travel Systems, a consortium of more than 100 agencies. "Agencies," he warned, "will either adapt or disappear."