Full-service agents have hit out at suppliers for giving the same commercial terms and rewards to a growing number of non‑bonded agents.

They say non-bonded agents receive the same treatment – from commission to fam trips – without paying for an Abta bond, Atol, consortium membership or handling payments.

There is no legal requirement to join Abta and there is no suggestion unbonded agents are operating illegally.

But Amanda Matthews, managing director of Designer Travel, said: “How can we be a professional industry with all these unlicensed people operating? They don’t take the clients’ money – they pass their details and payment straight to the operator – so it’s the operator’s Atol that will cover the money.

“Who issues the paperwork and who deals with any problems?

“Yet certain suppliers treat unbonded agents the same as us. They are invited to the same events and win awards. These individuals are taking all the credit for being a travel agent with zero financial responsibility or costs. It’s not fair.”

Kathryn Thompson, owner of Elite Travel Boutique, agreed: “The growing number of non-bonded agents is worrying. We are working on different playing fields. I don’t believe we have the same levels of protection or service – and the remuneration from the supplier is unfair. Bonded agents are paying for Abta and Atol insurances and often consortium fees that give extra assurance to clients.”

Some called for a system that makes clear the difference between bonded and unbonded agents – and operators pay accordingly.

Nick Samuels, managing director of Ashdown Travel, said: “My issue is whether it is ethical. I believe there should be a differential of what a bona fide agent is versus someone who is just introducing a client to an operator.”

Thompson said: “Consumers are not aware of what non-bonded agents are. With such high-value holidays in the luxury sector, it could be an expensive mistake if something went wrong.”

Matthews blamed suppliers for working with non-bonded agents, rather than the individuals. She called on suppliers to work only with agents who are members of travel associations or pay them a lower ‘referral’ fee.

One operator that works with such agents is Carrier. Managing director Mark Duguid said: “Our mix of non-Abta agents is a very small percentage of our trade business. To be a Preferred Partner and benefit from increased support, such as fam places, is about the level of business rather than the agent’s cost model.”

Paul Cleary, managing director of Caribtours, said: “We pay less‑favourable commercial terms [to unbonded agents] but those we do work with get invited to our awards and fams. The amount of business we do with them is inconsequential but if this is becoming an issue, we’ll review it.”

Abta’s definition of a bonded travel agent

“Abta agents are bound by the terms of Abta’s code of conduct, which is intended to ensure the highest standards of customer service and also covers all relevant legal requirements.

“This provides a high degree of reassurance for customers and suppliers, and Abta operators also benefit from the security for pipeline money provided by bonding.

“All of this means the public look out for the Abta logo, and that many suppliers will not allow non-Abta agents to sell their services.”