By John Frenaye Travel columnist
updated 8/10/2007 12:12:44 PM ET 2007-08-10T16:12:44

"BE A PART OF AMERICA'S FASTEST GROWING INDUSTRY — Earn thousands of dollars a month — from your home — selling travel!!!!"

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You can find ads like that everywhere from the telephone pole on your corner to your grocery store bulletin board to your daily newspaper.

While you may find these ads appealing, especially if you can't work outside your home, proceed with caution. Not all work-at-home opportunities deliver on their promises. As a matter of fact, most don't. And that's especially true in travel.

In the past, the "standard" get-rich-quick schemes involved stuffing envelopes, assembling crafts, or medical billing. But today, it seems that travel opportunities are fast climbing to the top of the list.

Three years ago, I wrote a column on travel scams and "Becoming A Travel Agent" was in the top five. Unfortunately, things have not changed.

Each month, I get 10 or 12 emails inviting me to participate in some new travel scheme. Very few, if any, are legitimate. Consumers deceived by these ads have lost thousands of dollars, in addition to their time and energy.

Some are "travel clubs" where you pay a membership fee for "discounted" travel, but I would like to focus on the new scourge of the industry — the "Business Opportunity."

Most of these "opportunities" are nothing more than Multi Level Marketing (MLM) which, as an industry, has very few success stories. They are reminiscent of Pyramid and Ponzi schemes where only the initial investors will make any substantial money. They claim that you can become a "credentialed" travel agent as soon as the check clears the bank. They promise upgrades, discounted air, free travel, and discounted travel for your friends and family. They claim you will be selling travel and earning a slice of the worldwide $525 billion dollar pie. (World Tourism Organization, 2003)

In reality, most times, you are buying a sub-site on a larger Web site and pressured to recruit more travel agents under you. There is very little travel sold by these "instant" agents. When you go to one of these sites like YTB, the focus is on joining the ranks and reaping the benefits. Notice the small link to actually book travel? These travel requests are not handled by the "agent" but by a call center. So, the consumer is once again duped. You think you're working with an agent or someone you know, but in reality it's a minimally-trained, cubicle-dwelling, order taker in a call center.

On several occasions, on a public travel forum, an advocate of the MLM business has argued the validity of his business. To me, all of the points seemed very Jim Jones-esque. When asked about the professionalism of these so-called agents, the reply was, "Who cares if they are "professionals" — people buy donuts from a donut shop."

On the "credentials," the reply was "Once the Affiliate Travel Agent or Platinum Travel Club Member creates the California minimum of $1,500 in travel sales, that person will receive our own official company issued Travel Seller ID Card that they may present to any travel vendor that will accept it." So, the credential is their own — and not that of professional organizations such as IATA, ARC, OSSN, CLIA, ARTA, or any of the other recognized travel industry associations.

When asked about the benefits of being involved with a MLM scheme, the response was very typical of those that are falling hard for the pitch:

"The best of all! Someone can become a Travel Agent instantly for anywhere from $99 a year to thousands of dollars — just depends — but — indeed, they are instantly a travel agent. No tests — no classes — no internships — nothing but paying a fee. Then they just need to get the word out and start booking travel. In the meantime, while waiting for customers to arrive — they can access Fam Trips and show their ID Card to Disney World and get in free. They can get upgrades at 4 and 5 star hotels by showing their ID card. The wonderful world of travel."

Um, Mr. Jones, can I please have another glass of that purple Kool-Aid? As a legitimate travel agent and a consumer, I am not feeling too comfortable with this philosophy. Are you?

Still not convinced? Take a look at this YouTube production from a pair of YTB travel agents. I am not rushing to the post office to mail them a check!

While travel certainly has some perks, most of them are going the way of the dinosaur. I am sure my pharmacist has some perks, but I don't see any "clubs" or "become a pharmacist" ads. Maybe travel is an easy target. Maybe the MLM outfits feel there are more gullible people that have an interest. Most true professionals are in the business for the love of the business. Ask anyone who has been around for more than a few years.

While these schemes pop up all the time and disappear as quickly as they appear, two of the biggest current offenders are YTB (Your Travel Biz) and World Ventures. Apparently, there is another "club" with an "insta-agent" option launching in October called eTrips Network.

All profess to offer wonderful discounts and perks that, in most instances, will never materialize. In addition they claim to provide "identification" cards that will reap steep discounts on personal travel. I have yet to speak with someone that can convincingly verify any of their claims. As my mother has always said, "If it's too good to be true, it probably is." For more enlightenment, visit the Web site scam.com and do a search for "travel opportunities."

That is not to say that one can't earn a living selling travel from home. There are thousands out there that do it every single day. With the growth of online sales and the reduction in brick-and-mortar storefronts, many of these displaced agents have gone home. You can, too.

There are many legitimate "hosts" that will facilitate this and work with you to achieve your goals. They will not fill you with false promises and inflated numbers. They are interested in selling travel. They work with the suppliers to build their collective businesses and relationships. Yes, they take some money from you, but you need to review the programs and decide what is best for you.

Some of the reputable host agencies are America's Vacations Center, Magellan 360, Cruise Planners, Nexion, GTM Travel Group and Travel Planners International. But realistically, if you want to make any money in any industry, you must be willing to work at it. Period. If you want a good list of reputable companies to begin a career in travel, check out the list maintained by the industry trade publication Travel Trade.

12 Questions to ask before joining up for any travel opportunity:

  1. What is the initial fee?
  2. What is my bottom-line monthly cost?
  3. How often will I be paid?
  4. What percentage of my sales do you retain?
  5. How long have you been a host agency?
  6. Can you give me five members to contact for a reference?
  7. What professional affiliations do you hold as a host?
  8. What training do you offer? In house? Online? Phone? Mail?
  9. How long is the contract?
  10. Do I actually sell travel?
  11. Do I need my own insurance or am I covered under yours?
  12. Will you put these claims in writing?

No. 12 is the most important one.

You also might want to check out the company with your local consumer protection agency, state attorney general and the Better Business Bureau, not only where the company is located, but also where you live. These organizations can tell you whether they have received complaints about the work-at-home program that interests you.

But be wary: the absence of complaints doesn't necessarily mean the company is legitimate. Unscrupulous companies may settle complaints, change their names or move to avoid detection. I know of one company that was a refrigeration company before becoming a travel company.

And to the naysayers out there, I challenge you. If you can prove the claims of the riches promised, I will publicly eat crow in a future column. Just e-mail me some redacted documents — bank statements, monthly commission checks, etc. Go on, I dare you. I double-dog dare you! The ball is in your court.

But until then, my advice to the consumer and someone looking to get into this business can be summed up in one word: BEWARE!

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With nearly ten years as a senior executive in the retail travel industry and a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail him or visit his Web site . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Frenaye's forum.

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