Corporate Agencies Turn to Home-Based Agents

by Fred Gebhart

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s chief executive officer, shook up the tech world early last year when she banned working from home.

The corporate travel world shrugged.

Today travel management companies of all sizes—from established industry giants like CWT to start-ups like Direct Travel—rely on a growing cadre of work-from-home corporate agents.

Telecommuting has become a way of life in corporate travel and a path to commercial success.

Virtual agents
“We made the decision about a decade ago to go with virtual corporate agents,” said Lea Cahill, CTC, chief operating officer of Atlas Travel & Technology Group.

“It was a very deliberate growth strategy. We saw the path forward as investing in technology and in our workforce rather than in real estate.”

Atlas has grown from an office-based regional travel management company in Milford, Mass., to an international operation. About 80% of its corporate agents telecommute from home. Most of the other 20% work either in the corporate office or onsite at a client’s location.

An industry shift
Atlas’ decision to grow with a distributed workforce, instead of concentrating employees in corporate offices and call centers, illustrates a shift in the travel agency industry.

Home-based agents accounted for 7% of the total agent population in 2003, according to  ASTA. By 2010, the at-home workforce accounted for 31% of the agent workforce.

Fast forward to 2014 and there are 40,000 agents working at home, of whom almost a quarter, 7,900, are focused on corporate travel.

Melissa Teates, CAE, ASTA director of research, said 21% of ASTA’s corporate travel agencies are 100% home-based. Another 57% of corporate agencies have at least some of their frontline agents working from home. Only 22% of corporate agencies are solely office-based.

Client preferences
“Some corporate agencies just don’t believe in letting their people work from home,” said Lisa Buckner, Direct Travel president, central and west regions in the Twin Cities area. “That’s likely one reason they are losing employees.”

Working from home can also be a function of client preferences.

About a quarter of Omega World Travel’s agents work from home, said executive vice president Goran Gligorovic. The company has legacy office-based operations, but many of its office-based agents are working at client sites.

If the client doesn’t need onsite support, Gligorovic sees distinct advantages in having agents work from home.

“Agents see it as a direct benefit,” Gligorovic he said. “Their commute time is cut to nothing. That’s a very direct financial and personal plus. Technology has made location seamless for both the TMC and for the client.”

Recruiting and keeping agents
Buckner said Direct Travel is focused on getting – and keeping – the best corporate agents it can find. That means different strategies for different geographic areas.

In the central U.S., Direct Travel is 90% virtual, she said. On the East Coast, where the growing consolidation of agencies includes those with existing call centers, the workforce is split 50/50 between telecommuters and in-office workers.

Casto Travel, based in San Jose, Calif., has about half of its agents working from home, said president and chief operating officer Marc Casto. But in urban locations like San Francisco, corporate agents are almost 100% office-based.

“Real estate is tight in certain areas, and agents don’t always have the space to dedicate to an office at home,” Casto said. “We rent space in a shared office environment and everyone benefits.

“Our agents have a reasonable commute and we don’t have the real estate and development costs.”

Helping growth
That kind of flexibility can help a TMC expand.

Cahill said Atlas expected to shift investment into workforce and technology by avoiding real estate costs. Agent recruitment and retention soon emerged as another advantage.

The company is extending agent service through 11 p.m., Eastern Time, and plans to go 24/7 later this year, all without outsourcing.

East Coast—West Coast
The key is a geographically-dispersed work force.

Agents on the West Coast can easily cover late hours for East Coast clients, while East Coast agents are on the job early for the West. Employees in Europe can add even more flexibility to service hours.

“When you go virtual, you open yourself up to a much broader pool of agents,” said Cahill.

“With very few exceptions, clients don’t care where an agent is located, they care about the level of service an agent provides. Why should we be any different?”

Next time: The pros and cons of working from home.

Tip of the Day
The professional travel advisor’s job is to equip the traveler with the necessary information to enable a good decision that will reflect that person’s own risk tolerance.
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