Labor Shortage Is A Critical Concern For Travel Agents, ASTA’s Ellenby Says

by Richard D'Ambrosio

American Society of Travel Agents chairman Jay Ellenby is happy that travel agents are doing well in an environment where consumers have “rediscovered” the value of experienced agents. But yesterday, at the ASTA New Jersey chapter annual trade show and dinner, he talked about how this resurgence in business is causing an increasingly dire shortage of new agents to handle the business.

“Agents are aging, and retiring, and we aren’t finding the large numbers of new agents to replace them,” Ellenby told Travel Market Report during an interview on the trade show floor. “How do we find the new younger agents, convince them to join our industry, and train them?”

Ellenby, president of his own agency, Safe Harbors Business Travel in Bel Air, MD, said he is struggling to fill the positions required to meet the demand of reservations from clients.

Just up from Washington, DC, where he met with the ASTA board and executive leadership team, Ellenby said sourcing and training new agents is one of the chief issues discussed at the meetings. ASTA and its board are now beginning to look at third-party entities, like community colleges, for partnerships to train young people interested in getting into the field, he said.

“The dilemma will be how to convince young people to become travel agents if the industry can’t pay more,” Ellenby said. He gave an example of how out of college, a young person with a four-year business degree could earn upwards of $40,000 a year. “Can we compete for that person with the salaries our industry affords us to pay?”

Agents and suppliers at the trade show agreed that business is strong in the current economic environment and that keeping up with demand is a challenge.

Roy Gal, escape artist for the Memories Forever Travel Group in Fair Lawn, NJ, is extremely happy with the reservations he receives from his expatriate clients living in America who travel back to Europe and Israel every summer for vacation. A closed Facebook group page Gal manages for his clients has grown to more than 1,000 members, he says, and he is so busy, he has decreased his reliance on corporate travel to better manage his agency’s workload and his personal life.

During his formal remarks at the NJ ASTA dinner, Ellenby spoke again about how surveys and anecdotal evidence show that travel agents have a strong value proposition that the public is recognizing again, though he regrets the insinuation that it is the travel agent who “is back.”

“It kind of bothers me, all these headlines about how travel agents are back,” he joked. “We never left. We were always here. It’s just that consumers have grown to realize the value we deliver.”

Rik Ardis, of Ardis Travel, Rutherford, NJ, and organizer of the trade show, said 96 travel agents were registered for the NJ ASTA event, another sign of the health of the industry.

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