Editor’s Note: In this Frontline, we train our spotlight on veteran agent Terry McCabe, senior VP and national director of leisure at ALTOUR. Here, McCabe shares her thoughts on her chosen career – as told to contributing editor Cheryl Rosen.
I always liked to travel. I took an escorted European tour with an aunt and loved the whole experience, and then I realized I could make a career of it.
I went to community school and took a six-week course; the teacher thought I had potential and she hired me. Back then there were no computers, they taught us how to read the OAG.
The big problem then and now was there was no barrier to entry.
I worked there [travel agency in Fort Lee, N.J.] for a brief time and then went to Stratton Travel. I walked in as an agent and walked out 25 years later as president.
When Stratton was sold [in 2004], Alex [Alexander Chemla] approached me to join Altour. I really liked the way he ran his business as a business and not as a travel agency. He opened an office in New Jersey for me.
His vision was that it’s all about the people; focus on that and the rest takes care of itself. Today Altour is a $1.2 billion business.
Sometimes agencies are run by people who are passionate travel agents. That’s great, but you need to not get trapped into thinking of yourself as just being a travel agent.
You need a growth plan. Look at ancillary businesses and remember that the people in your company are as important as the product.
Investing in growth
Alex was frustrated that there was no really good car service, so he started a company to do that. The same with private jets.
He also makes a really big investment in technology. You want to work smart, and to always reinvest in the company.
An adventure every day
I still love what I do. It’s a new adventure every day. I’m the national director of leisure, and I sit on a number of hotel advisory boards.
I also handle my own clients. It’s important to keep your hands on the frontline. At the end of the day this is a relationship business. When you work with vendors, it’s who you know that makes the experience for your clients.
I think home-basing works really well for some people, but it also presents challenges. It works especially well in the corporate arena, where in the past we’d lose great agents [because of changes in their personal situations].
You have to have a platform to keep everyone well-connected. You have to reach out to educate yourself; cross-pollination is so important in a travel agency.
Advice for young entrants
Here’s some career advice for young agents: Destination knowledge is critical, so get out there and travel.
This is a relationship business, so build relationships with all the people you turn your clients over to. Go to events. Welcome people to your office, and when someone stops by make the time to meet them.
Learn as much as you can. Be a sponge.
Invest in your people
The biggest problem with the travel industry is that the pay has been so low. Travel agencies, you need to invest in your people. They want good salaries, they want to have a career in which they can advance. I think the answer is a mix of salaries plus incentives.
The social media age
It’s a challenge for travel agencies to keep up with social media, to get information out there and control the information about you. That’s all handled now by our marketing department.
Everyone is marveling at the comeback of the travel agencies in a world of social media, though of course we never went away. The more noise there is out there, the more people need travel agents.
It’s a great career for young people. There’s going to be a great need for qualified travel counselors as so many people age out of the industry. So join us and see the world!