Resurrecting old roles can help with new competition


Matthew Metzger, College of Business, Colorado Springs Business Journal

Baby Boomers have shown themselves to be loyal and reliable employees with excellent problem-solving skills - characteristics many companies and organizations desperately need.

Problem: Over the last few decades, online and global sources of competition have become a ubiquitous challenge for strategy makers from almost all industries.

Leaders are often at a loss to compete with the increasing speed and seemingly incessant barrage of new competitors.

Travel agents represent a profession that was among the earliest and most affected by online competition. In 1996, when eBay was known as, Amazon only sold books, and Facebook didn’t exist, consumers were already researching and purchasing airline tickets online. Despite their eventual loss of airline ticket commissions, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and a host of additional challenges, travel agents continue to practice, with many touting their resurgence.

Their profession highlights the importance of examining, and potentially resurrecting, past roles for opportunities to create consumer value in ways that new competitors cannot immediately replicate.

Professional roles are patterned and repeated behaviors that practitioners engage in throughout their careers. Travel agents engaged in a variety of roles prior to deregulation of the airline industry in 1978. In response to lucrative commissions offered by airlines, agents shifted to an almost-complete reliance on selling airline tickets. Fast-forward to the late 1990s and new forms of e-commerce captured what had become the travel agent’s primary role and source of revenue.

Absent a means to prevent the loss of ticket sales to e-commerce, the travel agent profession seemed obsolete. One estimate suggested that in the year 2000 alone, declining ticket commissions cost agents a collective $4 billion and resulted in as many as one-third of all agencies closing.

Ironically, the 9/11 attacks marked the beginning of the travel agent’s resurgence. Instead of questioning their continued significance, consumers highly valued the travel agent’s ability to help them manage post-9/11 travel. As a result, agents resurrected and transformed their former role as a “rescuer” (preventing and responding to client travel complications) that had previously been neglected because they believed that marketing their services based on hazardous travel scenarios might hurt airline ticket sales.

Over the ensuing years, agents continued to look backward and resurrected several additional roles. Importantly, agents shared their successes and failures with these resurrected, erstwhile roles at local gatherings and professional conferences. In doing so, they perpetuated profession-wide experimentation and learning absent central coordination. Lastly, many of those that remain in the profession made significant investments in new technologies to add value to contemporary customers. In this way, the profession of travel agent now possesses a diverse, renewed and valued pool of interpersonal roles that current and future competitors will struggle to beat.

ACTIONS: There are several things that others can learn from the surprising survival of travel agents:

1. Look backward: Think about professional roles that once populated your career and/or industry as a source of potentially valuable insights that can be used to formulate strategic responses to changing competition. For example, agents once acted as “educators” to pre-internet consumers. Of course, consumers can now access an abundance of online information and agents are no longer valued simply for provision of information. However, many agents now leverage skills associated with their past educator role in new ways to help consumers “edit” what has become an overwhelming amount of information.

2. Use your network: In transforming their professional roles, travel agents banded together in mostly informal ways to discuss innovative ways to transform professional roles. The problem with centralized, profession-wide responses to competition is that success is heavily predicated on getting it right the first time. So, if you find yourself in an industry with no clear plan for dealing with changing competition, look to your consumers first, revisit your past roles, and then engage with colleagues about how those roles can be modified to be competitive and relevant to today’s customers.

3. Invest in technology: Lastly, know that reinvigorating old roles will likely entail significant investments. Travel agents who weathered the 1990s and 2000s were those that recognized the internet’s value as a tool for realigning roles to meet the needs of their contemporary consumers. These realignments included using the internet to promote business, enhancing their ability to research travel data, and a more recent use of Web 2.0 technologies to coordinate customer travel in real-time. Ask yourself, what technologies should I be investing in to enhance my value-added roles?

Matthew Metzger, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and innovation in the College of Business at UCCS. Contact:

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