THE Scottish Passenger Agents' Retail Consortium has become the latest retailer grouping to join Thomson's Preferred Agent scheme.
Like ARTAC and Midconsort, it will operate a tiered system with around 25% of the 43 members falling into the top category. They will receive all the marketing support and enhanced commission that comes with being a Preferred Agent with the remainder of the consortium receiving tactical offers from Thomson.
While the deal is more likely to have materialised because of the market leader's new agent-friendly attitude than of any huge sales increase from SPARC, it is a sign that the consortium is being taken seriously.
Industry observers questioned the worth of SPARC, claiming the major Scottish agents such as Stepek Travel turned their back on the consortium, preferring to stay as non-franchised members of Advantage Travel Centres.
Four months down the line and with 72 shops within the organisation, SPARC is beginning to be recognised and has deals with almost 90 operators.
However, some in the industry still regard SPARC as too small with Airtours dealing only with individual agents. But the deal with Thomson has given the consortium a much-needed confidence boost.
"We have a deal with First Choice but you cannot ignore Thomson. Customers come in and ask for the product. We are delighted," said chief executive Ken McLeod. "My belief is that while a small agent in isolation is not important, collectively it adds up."
But the former managing director of Canadian Affair and founder of AT Mays consolidator Airsavers admitted there is much work to be done with members needing to be dragged into the 21st century if the consortium is to survive and prosper.
"Very few of the members have e-mail and none of them could provide figures for their sales of specific operators. I couldn't believe it," he said. "When I arrived I worked my way through the operators and asked them how much business was generated through SPARC members. I was severely embarrassed on a couple of occasions when they came back and told me they had not received one booking."
"Not having figures makes it impossible to see what we need to do to improve."
McLeod is now on a mission to educate agents and in November will start product training sessions with the aim of encouraging members to support operators where there are deals. The first training session, however, will be about SPARC itself.
"If we can get them to understand what SPARC is all about it will fall into place. Staff do their own thing and sell a product if it means they get a £5 voucher from the operator. There is no common policy within SPARC and I feel we need more structure. You cannot be all things to all operators."
McLeod denied that SPARC will start directionally selling but admitted members need to be focused.
"There is a fine line between the two," he admitted. "I believe you can have a nucleus of operators and support them without going down the road of having one preferred operator. In my opinion Advantage, in doing a deal with Airtours, has become another Going Places.
"You can focus on operators without being dictatorial. You do it through training and communication and getting to the people who sell the product."
But industry observers argue SPARC will become no different from other consortia. "Although it says no targets will be set, operators will want to see results which will put pressure on SPARC agents to directionally sell,"said one.
McLeod admitted that all agents will have to contribute to SPARC's growth and take part in initiatives with operators. He added those who are not prepared to play their part will not be welcome.
"It's too easy to hang on the the coattails," he said. "One agent wanted to join because of the Thomson deal but we also want reasonable contribution elsewhere."
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