Attracting Young Talent: Agents Take Action

by Dori Saltzman

This is the last in a four-part Travel Market Report series examining the lack of young people in the travel agency profession – including the causes and possible solutions.

Getting young workers to join the travel agency profession has its challenges. But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Some industry members are tackling the problem.

One example is TravelStore, a California-based agency with several locations. The company recently completed its first in-house class on how to become an agent. After the 10-week class was over, TravelStore hired three graduates, two of whom are under 35 years old, Dan Ilves, vice president, sales and marketing, told Travel Market Report.

Large-scale initiative
Virtuoso began tackling one of the main issues keeping younger workers away – compensation – 10 years ago, and on a large scale. The first step: Change the organization’s mission statement to emphasize the importance of improving the “compensation and personal fulfillment of the front-line travel advisor.” 

Matthew Upchurch

Since then the agency marketing group has looked at everything it does “through the prism of how do you actually make this a higher compensation profession and what can make it more personally fulfilling,” Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso CEO, told Travel Market Report.

Virtuoso has concentrated many of its changes in three areas: recruitment, education and mentoring.

The effort has paid off. “Over the past 10 years, we’ve noticed a growing number of new advisors. Some are younger and just starting their careers in travel,” Upchurch said.

“Last year, though, was a tipping point. Eighty percent of the time, when a member stopped me at the [annual] conference, it was to introduce a young recruit.”

Corporate entry is easier
Agencies looking to bring in younger employees don’t have to make sweeping changes. For agencies with a corporate division, simply deciding to hire a younger employee may be all it takes.

The leisure side is more difficult for two reasons: It’s somewhat dominated by independent contractors, and there’s more at stake when hiring someone with no experience.

Jason Coleman

Jason Coleman, president of Jason Coleman Inc., said young entrants more often join the profession through the corporate doorway.

“In [ASTA’s] Young Professionals Society we see a lot of young people coming in, but they’re not coming in on the leisure side,” said Coleman, the group’s chair.

The group encourages young people to join on the corporate side, he said, “because it’s a fast-paced environment where you don’t have to have the same level of travel knowledge about suppliers, products and destinations.”

Using social media
But not all agencies have a corporate division. So how can leisure agencies attract younger employees?

One solution is to become active in social media. ASTA’s Young Professional Society recently hosted a webinar on how to become a travel agent and promoted it via social media. More than 700 people attended. 

Jan Rose, a partner at human resources consulting firm Mercer, and Jason Ryan Dorsey, a generational strategist, both told Travel Market Report that if agents want to recruit younger agents, they need to advertise themselves on a variety of social networking platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube.

Social media is part of what’s helping to attract young employees to host agency TravelQuest, a Travel Leaders franchisee in Albertville, Minn.

Stephanie Lee

“We like to make a big splash online and utilize online marketing and social media, as well as teach others how to,” said Stephanie Lee, operations. TravelQuest hosts regular webinars for agents on how to use various types of new technology.

“A lot of the things we do are attractive to a younger audience. Our culture is very young-feeling. We believe in being very open and transparent, as well as having a sense of humor about things. That’s something people in their 20s and 30s grew up with and expect.”

Today, 15% of TravelQuest’s independent contractors are between the ages of 25 to 34, and 19% are 35 to 44 years old.

Warmer welcome
Once agencies start opening the door to younger employees, it’s critical that the industry as a whole offer a warm welcome, agents said.

There is a tendency for agents in their 50s and 60s to not give younger agents a chance – and the word gets out there, said Marc Casto, president of San Jose, Calif.-based Casto Travel.

Coleman said the profession also isn’t taking advantage of its younger members. “We’re out there and some of us are very visible and vocal, but I don’t know whether there’s a hesitation to let us be in leadership roles because we’re going to shake things up too much.”

This need for support within the industry was what prompted the creation of the Young Professional Society within ASTA, said Kari Thomas, president of Will Travel Inc. in Langhorne, Penn., and a founding member of YPS.

Kari Thomas

“We created YPS to give [young] people in the industry somewhere to meet and know that other people were in the same boat.

“We made a place where they can get together, where they didn’t feel out of the loop or different. Not only that, but to encourage other people: ‘Here is an industry that is welcoming to young people. Don’t look the other way. We are here.’”

TravelQuest’s Lee agreed. “The first thing is building a strong community. Once you build that community, this is going to help them stay in it and talk about how great it is. And from there it’s a natural grassroots effort that branches out to friends and family.”

‘Just do it’
Ultimately, it all comes down to agency owners deciding that young blood in the industry is essential and taking the critically important step of hiring.

Marc Casto

“Everybody has to practice what they preach; saying it, isn’t sufficient,” Casto said. “If you’re complaining about not enough young people getting into the industry, then hire somebody that’s young.”

But recruiting the younger generation takes more than just slapping a help wanted ad up on Facebook or LinkedIn, especially if the ad emphasizes GDS experience. Instead, emphasize passion for travel. “Because if you have a passion for travel, all the rest can be figured out,” said Ryan McGredy, owner of Moraga Travel in Moraga, Calif.

Ryan McGredy

An industry-wide educational program wouldn’t hurt either. McGredy said he’d love to see “something that’s institutionalized and aimed at travel agency owners – a ‘here’s how to create a recruitment, training and retention plan for your business.’”

For agencies that succeed in recruiting and retaining younger employees the benefits will be significant.

“The next generation of travel advisors is going to get to a place of success so much faster than existing travel advisors have, simply because they’ve not had to reinvent themselves,” Virtuoso’s Upchurch said.

“These young advisors already know their value and are comfortable charging for it. And because they’ve only known the world with Internet, they know how to work with it and not against it.”

Don’t miss Travel Market Report’s previous articles about the lack of young people in the travel agency profession and what to do about it.

Lack of Youth Endangers Agents' Long-Term Survival,” Feb. 17, 2011.

Image, Education, Money Drive Young People Away,” Feb. 24, 2011
Clash of Work Styles May Deter Young Agents,” March 3, 2011

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