Tackling The Staffing Challenge At Leisure Agencies

by Marilee Crocker


“Staffing is our biggest struggle,” one agency owner told Travel Market Report recently. And she surely is not alone. Finding great employees is one of the toughest challenges facing leisure travel agencies today.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and many travel agencies try a little of this and a little of that. TMR spoke with three of them to find out how they’re tackling this thorny issue.

Atlas Travel, Milford, MA
Karen McCrink has been involved in hiring for the leisure travel department at Atlas Travel for all of her 16 years there. In recent years, as the pool of experienced travel agents has shrunk, she’s had to adopt more flexible thinking about staffing.

One of McCrink’s hiring success stories is a young woman who joined Atlas three years ago with a college degree in tourism and hospitality but no travel agency experience. “We were looking to bring someone in at that level and bring them up,” said McCrink, director of leisure travel services. “She’s done great.”

Atlas also has partnered with a local high school that has a tourism and hospitality program to hire students part-time to work on special projects. If one of those students were to show promise “we would create a path for them,” McCrink said.

The agency also worked with an organization that provides employment support for individuals with disabilities to hire a young man part-time to help with research and other tasks.

Bringing industry newcomers up to speed is burdensome for travel agencies, especially when they lack formal training procedures, but McCrink has found that having staff with a mix of tenure and ages creates a rewarding diversity of knowledge, skills and aptitude, she said. Younger staff members bring “fresh ideas,” a readiness to question why the agency does things a certain way and a welcome comfort level with technology. “They come with a willingness to learn, the desire to make money, the interest in doing well. They understand that it’s a numbers game.”

One thing that has helped Atlas Travel in hiring is its flexible work arrangements; agents split their time working from home and in the office. “That flexibility makes a big difference to people [and creates] more loyalty,” she said.

Dimensions in Travel, Novato, CA
At Dimensions in Travel, hiring is always on the agenda, said president and co-owner Jill Romano; “we’re constantly looking at making sure we’ve got enough people for the business at hand as well to allow us to grow.” The agency has hired five leisure salespeople in the past few years; three of them have worked out.

These days Romano finds new hires through a combination of channels, including spreading the word through supplier business development managers, networking at events and through the agency’s consortium, Ensemble Travel Group.

Like McCrink, Romano has grown more flexible in her approach to hiring. “We have to think outside the traditional box,” she said.

One unexpected hiring success involved a woman who replied to a job posting on Craigslist, but said in her email she was responding to an opening for a “wine club coordinator.” Romano emailed to let her know of the mistake, only to get back a reply saying it was an intentional ploy to draw attention to her letter of interest. The tactic showed the kind of creative thinking Romano has come to appreciate.

Through the years, Romano has honed her interviewing skills too. Instead of asking job candidates things like whether they’re good at multitasking, she poses open-ended questions, such as, “What would you do if a client were stranded by an airport shutdown?” She doesn’t expect inexperienced applicants to have all the answers. “I’m watching their thinking processes,” she said.

She’s also learned the hard way to have job candidates write a sample email responding to a client inquiry. “We’ve had issues with writing skills.”

Fox World Travel, Oshkosh, WI
Fox World Travel’s approach to hiring leisure agents still relies largely on job postings on its own website and on sites like LinkedIn and Hot Travel Jobs. But in recent years the agency has changed what those ads say, according to chief culture officer Audra Mead.

“When I came onboard, I found we just weren’t telling the story and we weren’t attracting people,” said Mead, who joined Fox in 2014 as director of human resources. Now, instead of posting standard job descriptions, “we try to tell our story, so people get a flavor for who we are at Fox. We say, here’s who we’re looking for and here’s a day in the life of this person, and if this excites you, then you need to talk to us.’

That strategy, together with attention to hiring candidates who fit into the agency’s culture, has allowed Fox World Travel to attract and retain experienced travel sellers, Mead said.

Another successful tactic has been to develop vacation travel consultants from within. “We’ve been bringing on administrative assistants and growing our own. It’s a great way to learn about the industry, and they’re serving on the administrative side, so they’re seeing that back-office piece of it,” Mead said.

One of Mead’s current hiring goals is to create a pipeline for future hires before there’s an actual need. To that end, she and her colleagues have become more proactive about talking up the virtues of Fox World Travel at community and industry events.

The agency also has hired student interns from a local university, and many of them have stayed on as employees. Now Mead is pondering ways to spark interest in travel-agency careers among students at the local middle and high school. “That’s on the near horizon for us,” she said.

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