The Virtual Life Isn’t Everything You Might Think, Part 1

by Richard D’Ambrosio

The life of a travel agent has undergone a radical change in the past 20 years, with the Internet and other technologies enabling professionals to unchain themselves from centralized call centers and empowering them to pursue a life many office dwellers envy.

Today, there is a dearth of talented travel agents, affording many the chance to work from home and negotiate a good salary to boot.

But Gayle Walsh, president of Personnel Travel Consultants LLC in New Egypt, NJ, says agents need to fully investigate the virtual work life before making the jump. For example, working from home has hidden financial costs, and can blur the lines between work and personal, Walsh said. So it’s not for everyone.

Walsh recently conducted a survey of 71 experienced virtual agents, employed by travel agencies in and around the New York metropolitan area. She gleaned some insight into the challenges and benefits of working from home.

The agents who responded were tenured, averaging slightly more than 25 years in the business. Although the survey didn’t ask when the respondents had gone virtual, 32% said they took a pay cut to do so, with about half of those estimating the salary giveback at 5%-10%.

Currently, though, agents have leverage in virtual office negotiations, said Linda Alexander, vice president of operations at Teplis Travel in Atlanta. “After 9/11, and after the recession, there was a cut-back in staff, and it was an employer’s market. But right now, it is an employee’s market for salary and work location,” she said.

Pros and cons vary
Two-thirds of the respondent agents are utilizing their own home internet service, while 42% supply their own phone and 56% supply their own printer.

PTT’s survey revealed the myriad differences in office and virtual work environments and how they impact a travel agent’s income. Saving the costs of gas, mileage, clothing and time involved in commuting make working from home “a win for the agent,” Walsh said, though she noted many do not consider the higher costs of utilities.

Still, out of the 71 respondents to PTT’s survey, 54 said they prefer to work from home.

If an agent is jumping to a new workplace in order to work from home, one area that might impact their success is the amount of training they will receive. Out of 71 respondents to the PTT survey, 41 received only a week’s training when they went virtual, a potential problem for agents and their employers, Walsh said.

“It’s one reason why some agents don’t work out,” she said. “Every agency does things differently, and even though an agent knows Sabre the mid-office and back-office scripts and procedures can be challenging. Some agents will pick things up quicker than others.”

Where in an office newcomers can just ask a co-worker a quick question, that’s not an option at home. “You are at the mercy of a ‘go-to person’ and if they are not available, you are sitting at your desk trying to figure things out.”

It took two or three months before even the experienced agents in the survey felt completely ramped up with their new work environment and employer. “I think that in order for an agent to feel 90% comfortable takes three months,” Walsh said.

One way agencies try to assist virtual agents is providing them with a “buddy” agent. According to the survey, 77% were assigned a mentor.

Still, for someone who has never worked from home, life can get lonely.

“Working virtually is great for most people, but it isn’t for everyone,” said Alexander at Teplis. “You have to have discipline, applied throughout your career.”

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