This is the latest in a series about travel agency staffing issues.
While many leisure agencies are challenged to recruit and retain talented staff these days, some have devised a winning formula that helps them beat the odds during any economic cycle.
Here are tips from agency owners and travel employment experts on creating a workplace environment where turnover is low and productivity high.
1. Flexibility on work location
Some agents prefer to work at home, some need an agency office environment and some need a combination. Whether they are employees or independent contractors, people want a choice.
“The number-one request I get from many agents is that they want to work virtually,” said Sherry Caserta, owner of Travel Employment Agency in Kansas City, Mo. “This is huge. If you have an agent who has worked in your office successfully for awhile, you won’t lose them if they say they want to work from home. In fact, you are more likely to keep them.”
Giving agents a choice of working at home, the office or doing a combination has worked for Brownell Travel, a leisure-agency headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., said vice president Martha Gaughen. The agency workforce of 120 includes 62 independent contractors as well as in-house sales and operations employees.
While Brownell’s administrative and accounting staff work in the home office, travel consultants have a wide range of choice. “You can be anywhere as long as you have access to a phone and computer,” Gaughen said.
While many have opted to work from home, some who live close to the agency locations in Atlanta, Birmingham and Richmond, Va., like the option of coming into the office for some of the time.
“Some like the option of coming into the office as it gives them a place to meet with vendors and get a sense of community,” Gaughen said. “The important thing to us is that people are productive. And productivity has never been so high since people have been given these options.”
2. Good commission tracking and prompt payment
When it comes to commission checks, it’s not only the amount that counts, Caserta said. Agents want to receive their checks promptly and they want the paperwork to be clear and accurate.
“Agents don’t want to be fighting for their commission checks,” she said. “And they want everything clearly indicated in the report, so they can track what was sold. Don’t just give them a check – write everything down and let them know what they earned and why.”
3. Competitive compensation
While not the only motivator, offering compensation that keeps pace with what is being offered by competitors is perhaps the most obvious factor. This is especially true during times when agents are in high demand, said Doug Walsh, director of marketing for HotTravelJobs.com, a travel industry placement service.
“Agencies want experienced agents with destination and GDS experience, so if one agency offers great commissions then said agent might just jump ship,” he said. “If they are happy with their compensation, perks and clout at their current agency, they are more likely to stick around.”
Sitting down with an employee to discuss their financial goals is important, as well as recognizing that people expect far more out of a travel career than travel opportunities or mad money, Gaughen said.
“People are approaching travel as a viable career much more so now than when I entered the business almost 30 years ago,” she said. “I saw it as a career, but one that would bring in extra income that my husband I could use for travel. It wasn’t to pay the gas bill. Now people are looking at travel to pay the gas bill, to support themselves and their families.”
4. Keep staff levels consistent
A big reason that Riverdale Travel, a Travel Leaders leisure agency in Coon Rapids, Minn., is not facing a staffing shortage is that the agency resisted the temptation to downsize during the recession, said owner Sandy Anderson.
“I didn’t do layoffs, but invested in keeping my team intact,” she said. “I took a hit personally, but it was worth it.”
Anderson said she makes it a policy to keep at least three consultants in the office, even during non-peak hours, so that agents are not overstressed by handling an unexpected volume of walk-in business. The situation promotes a good environment for agents and clients alike, she said.
“It costs me, but it pays off in terms of sales,” she said. “Customers know when they are being rushed and ignored.”
5. Give support
Agencies that provide a good support system tailored to the needs of the individual are unlikely to face a quality staffing shortage, according to Gaughen.
“The key to keeping good people is to give them the comfort level they need to achieve their maximum potential productivity and earnings,” she said. “It’s important to make sure they have the marketing support, technology tools and sense of community they need to grow professionally.”
A pat on the back now and then doesn’t hurt either, Caserta said.
“People don’t just work for the money alone,” she said. “They work because they love what they do and they want to be commended for it. People want to hear that they are doing a good job.”
6. Think outside the box for recruitment
While experienced agents are desired, finding new talent means being open minded and thinking outside the box, especially since traditional training avenues such as travel schools have disappeared. Promising new staffers may crop up in unexpected places, said Anderson.
“A young woman at a department store was very helpful to me recently,” she said. “Later, it occurred to me that maybe I could recruit her to work in travel.”
Help Wanted: Leisure Agencies Face Staffing Dilemma
The key to keeping good people is to give them the comfort level they need to achieve their maximum potential productivity and earnings. It’s important to make sure they have the marketing support, technology tools and sense of community they need to grow professionally.
Martha Gaughen, Brownell Travel