Qualified Corporate Agents Are a Hot Commodity
by Fred Gebhart

Having trouble replacing a key business travel agent who retired last spring? You aren’t alone.

Curt Cobler, president of Infinity Travel in Houston, would like to expand. But the $16 million agency can’t find enough qualified candidates.

“The biggest problem is replacing experienced agents as they retire,” Cobler told Travel Market Report.

“You can hire good frontline agents who have been laid off by a mega-agency, but they stick around just long enough to line up a new job with another mega. We offer job security – we’ve never laid off an agent in our almost 25 years – but that’s not enough.”

Demand for agents
What good corporate agents want today is everything – a higher salary, medical and other benefits, 401(k), flexible hours and more.

The good news for agents is that they probably can get it all. The bad news for agencies is that they will probably have to provide it all.

The reason is there are more open travel agent positions at corporate agencies nationally than there are travel agents to fill them.

“There is a real shortage of corporate travel agents out there,” said Gail Walsh, head of Personal Travel Consultants, a long-time temporary placement agency for corporate travel agents. “Agencies that have agents are looking at ways to retain them.”

Job hopping by agents is up. Salaries are up. Benefits are up. And there is no fix in sight.

Experience needed
Suppose you want to bid a large corporate account that wants an agent or two onsite, Cobler said. If you win the account, where do you get new people who can handle the job? If they aren’t already on staff, you’re stuck.

“You can’t fabricate experienced agents,” he said. “You can’t pull them off the street and train them in six weeks. Business travel just isn’t that simple.  Corporate agencies need people now who can answer all the questions that menu-driven systems don’t and can’t address.”

Cyclical business
Travel has always been a cyclical business, said Goran Gligorovic, executive vice president for Omega World Travel. Today’s hiring crunch had its roots in the Internet bubble of the late 1990s.

Back then, online bookings and automation seemed to be sweeping the industry. Demand for travel agents, both leisure and corporate, plummeted, prompting many of the most entrepreneurial agents to leave the field.

Demand for corporate agents also fell following 9/11. Then, as business travel picked up, online booking tools and online travel agencies were ready and waiting to pick up the slack.

The continuing slide in corporate agent demand encouraged older agents to retire and discouraged younger agents from entering the business.

By 2006 and 2007, demand for corporate agents was picking up. Then came recession, and more corporate agent jobs disappeared.

No rookies in the business
The typical Omega World agent has between 15 and 20 years experience, Gligorovic said. Agents with other corporate agencies typically have similar experience.

“There are no rookies in this business,” he said. “That’s the up side.

“The other side is that travel is a profession that a lot of younger people don’t think about. With retirements, you eventually get a shortage. That’s where we are now.”

Some agencies will get lucky based on location and decisions their competitors make. Minnetonka, Minn., CTS benefits every time its neighboring mega-agencies cut back or change procedures enough to aggravate corporate agents into looking for alternatives.

Incentives needed
Agencies that aren’t lucky enough to have competitors sending qualified job seekers their way are probably going to have to boost salaries, benefits, or both.

“With all the talk nationally about unemployment, travel has a shortage,” Gligorovic said. “Salaries keep creeping up. Employers need to provide incentives to keep their people. If you don’t provide those incentives, somebody else will.”

Big opportunities
Michael Steiner, executive vice president of Ovation Travel, is philosophical about the current talent crunch. Some years travel is up, some years travel is down. But solid companies, and solid agents, keep working.

“This is not a business for the faint-hearted,” he said. “Yes, staffing is a challenge now, but corporate travel remains a big business with big opportunities.

“The need to travel is still there and there is still a subset of individuals who prefer to speak to a consultant. The agents who can meet that need will earn more and better than they have in the past.”

Next time: Lack of training exacerbates staffing challenges for corporate agencies.

Related story
Help Wanted: Leisure Agencies Face Staffing Dilemma

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