Despite the fact that many recent college grads say travel perks are a definite plus in an entry-level job, many travel agencies say that recruiting and retaining good workers is not as easy it as it sounds.
“It’s a universal problem that all small business owners face,” said JoAnne Verboom of Travels by Gagnon, in Grand Rapids, MI. “Being a good boss and an understanding boss can retain good talent; finding them is another story,” she added.
Recruiting, in fact, was mentioned by several travel agents as a particular challenge, despite–or perhaps because of–the proliferation of internet job hunting sites. “I don’t use them, and a number of agency owners have told me that they are not happy with the responses they get,” said Verboom.
“It is really tough,” said Terry Regan, of Berkeley’s Northside Travel, in Berkeley, Calif. One of his top recruiting grounds, he said, was a travel program at the local community college, where he used to teach. “That was where you could get some good people, but they shut the program down,” he noted, when they found they were having trouble filling the classes.
Part of the problem is the perception fueled by news stories that all but declare that travel agencies are extinct, Regan said. “They used to be this sense there were jobs everywhere; now, it’s that there are so few agencies left.”
Verboom also cited the disappearance of travel schools as a hindrance to hiring staff.
“We had a travel school years ago in our area, and my office had an arrangement with them for their students to come in in the evening, so they could train on our Apollo system,” she said. “I had the pick of the students” who wanted jobs after that, she said. “Unfortunately after 9/11 that travel school closed, and I’m not aware of any others that are left in the state of Michigan.”
A number of four-year colleges do offer degrees in travel and tourism, she said, adding that she’s aware that some institutions reach out to travel agencies and invite them to participate in various capacities. However, many of these programs tend to emphasize jobs in the hotel industry, which might be seen as offering more potential for growth.
“The challenge agency owners’ face is paying what the market will bear for hiring new recruits,” said Verboom, noting that college graduates who have significant debt or other expenses may be discouraged by the stating pay in agency work.
Typically, agency jobs start with an hourly rate plus some commission, but in some highly competitive markets, like New York or Los Angeles, entry-level jobs are sometimes strictly commission only.
So how do agencies overcome the perception problem?
“The thing to emphasize is this is a fun business and there are still perks available; if you are young and looking for last-minute travel possibilities, you can find them,” Verboom said.
A lot of larger agencies rely on independent contractors for sales, but still, they still need to employ staff to handle many of the facets of their business, like marketing and accounting support. And there too, being in the travel industry can be plus in the recruiting process.
Scott Koepf, of Avoya Travel, based in San Diego, CA, said that while the agency’s travel sellers are, for the most part, consultants, the company employs more than 150 people, many in marketing and support capacities. While they might not be working strictly as travel agents, the opportunity to work in a travel-related profession is appealing to a younger demographic.
“Our average age here among the employees in the office is 28 years old,” he said. In hiring, Koepf said he looks for “a great work ethic, and how much knowledge they have of the travel industry and in the areas in which they will be functioning.”
He added: “We can offer a culture that knows how to have fun.” Among other things, the agency can provide friends and family rates and employees who deal regularly with certain suppliers are often given travel opportunities as well.
Several agents mentioned that in addition to positions posted on ASTA’s site, there are several internet job search sites specifically aimed at travel agents.
A search of hottraveljobs.com turned up 34 job listings, many requiring a minimum of several years’ experience and proficiency in Sabre and other computer reservations systems. And the positions ranged from a full-time office position to a home-based to a night-shift job booking travel for a large agency chain.
Some even offered to pay for training, which may sound less enticing than a trip to Tahiti, but is the best investment an agency can make to keep good employees.