In the same way the U.S. airline industry is being whittled down to just a half-dozen major carriers and a few good-size regional players, the travel-agency business also is changing.
Most vacation planning and a lot of business travel for small and medium-size companies is done by thousands of mom-and-pop travel agencies staffed by half a dozen or fewer employees.
But increasingly, major corporations are turning to a handful of big agencies, at which they are consolidating all travel management.
"Mega-agencies" -- such as American Express Co., Rosenbluth Travel, the Carlson Travel Network, IVI Travel, Maritz Travel, Lifeco Inc. and Thomas Cook Travel -- have been growing steadily for years.
Now, according to an annual study completed in March by Corporate Travel magazine, the recession has accelerated a movement among the 100 largest U.S. companies to find one or two big agencies to book travel business worth millions of dollars annually.
Of the Fortune 100 companies, 30.5 percent use American Express, 12 percent use Carlson, 8 percent use Rosenbluth, 7 percent use IVI, and 6 percent use Maritz. Lifeco and Thomas Cook each have 5 percent of that trade; USTS has 3 percent, and Wagon-Lits has 1.5 percent.
Local agencies, however, are not to be dismissed: They still have percent of the market among the nation's 100 largest corporations.
The big companies increasingly are looking for the kinds of services the mega-agencies say they can provide: more discounts on air fares and hotels through volume purchasing; better reports to management on travel costs, and the ability to put together complex itineraries.
"The recession certainly accelerated the move toward agency consolidation, but this is a trend that's been building for a while and is expected to last," said Laurie Berger, editor in chief of Corporate Travel.
Almost all the companies surveyed for the study had recently changed their travel management, Berger added.
The changes included striking new contracts with service suppliers, such as rental-car companies; restructuring internal travel departments or policies, and consolidating travel services with one agency.
For instance, one major corporation had been using 400 local travel agencies but now uses two mega-agencies.
And some companies eschew the big agencies and sometimes don'twant travel-service companies involved much in planning.
Corporate Travel also unearthed some facts about how much the major companies spent on travel last year, about whose spending increased or decreased, and about how the companies decided whether to consolidate their spending at one agency.
The downsizing of Campbell Soup Co., for instance, reduced its work force by 11,000 worldwide. The company spent about $7 million on air travel last year, a 30 percent cut from 1989, the magazine reported.
Campbell considered consolidating its travel management in one agency but, after encountering resistance from departments, continues to use 10 agencies, the magazine said.
The magazine's study revealed that with business booming last year for Shell Oil, of Houston, its travel and entertainment spending went up 17 percent, to $60 million, including $34 for air fares.
North American Philips, of New York, "frustrated by incomplete travelers -expeense data and hoping to contain cost ... abruptly consolidated travel operations last year with Rosenbluth Travel," Corporate Travel said.
Rosenbluth operates reservations facilities just for Philips, both in its plants and offices and in nearby locations.
By early April, business travelers and managers of corporate-travel departments had regained much of the confidence in travel security that they lost during the Persian Gulf war, another major study shows.
In surveys sponsored by the Boeing Co. and conducted by the Wirthlin Group, a Washington marketing-research firm, 1,000 frequent business travelers were queried in five U.S. airports. Quizzed separately were 66 corporate travel managers for Fortune 500 companies. The travelers took an average of 19 trips last year.
The travelers said that on a scale of 1 to 10, their confidence in airtravel was at the 8.3 level, compared with 7.6 just a month or two earlier.
Among the managers, 92 percent said their corporate travel policies were functioning normally. Of the companies surveyed, about half had restricted travel during the war.