Mega-travel agencies have long maintained meeting departments for corporate clients, but since the elimination of airline commissions, smaller agencies are moving into the meeting market. The trend is blurring the line between independent planning companies and agencies and stirring concerns about agencies' relative inexperience.

“An agency outstanding in handling vacations won't necessarily be able to handle meetings,” says Christine Duffy, president and COO of Philadelphia-based travel management firm McGettigan Partners. A meeting specialist for 20 years, Duffy says her company, which does $1 billion annually in group sales, has an infrastructure the average-sized agency can't possibly match.

But travel agencies say their general knowledge and experience in booking air gives them an edge. Princeton Travel Center, Watertown, Conn., has expanded into meetings, and corporate account manager Denise Wallace has been working on her Certified Meeting Professional certification. Meetings account for about 25 percent of the company's $7 million to $10 million in annual sales. Wallace says her agency's ability to negotiate with airlines as well as hotels helps it compete. “I have insight into the travel industry, and I'm amazed at what planners don't know.”

Some say there's room for everyone. Kathy Sudeikis, vice president of corporate relations at All About Travel, Overland Park, Kan., and national vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents, says her agency handles the demand for meetings by contracting with an experienced planner. “We bring talent to the task,” she says. “We bring the meeting planner into the mix. But we don't keep them on payroll.”

Nathan E. Devore, president of Rich Worldwide Travel, Harrison, N.Y., hires planners on staff — “people who've done it for large organizations.” His agency, with $165 million in annual sales, has long had a group travel department to take care of the air needs for corporate planners. It also has a meeting department, which accounts for about 10 percent of overall business.

Agent Acquisition

Travel agencies may be able to provide first-rate meeting planning help, but do your homework. Some questions to ask:

  • How long has the company been in the meeting business?

  • What kinds of meetings has it planned (size, format)?

  • Are meeting planners on staff or outsourced?

  • What's the fee structure?