Gayle Walsh, president of Personnel Travel Consultants LLC in New Egypt, NJ, recently conducted a survey of 71 experienced virtual agents, employed by travel agencies in and around the New York metropolitan area. We reported the results in Part 1 of this story—and then we spoke with a few agents about their experiences.
Walsh suggested that it takes a certain kind of agent to make a go of working independently—one with both a strong work ethic and the ability to get through the day without a lot of social interaction.
Beverly Gallant, a travel counselor at VIP Vacation Travel Specialist at Travelink, American Express, agreed. “I’m a self-starter,” she said. “When I first started from home, I felt like I had to prove myself. I was always that way, but now even more so.”
“I definitely miss the personal interaction,” said Daniel DeTorrice, a business-travel specialist who left a major brand name corporate travel company’s on-site location to go virtual slightly more than two years ago. “It's also difficult to meet new people.”
Others enjoy the quiet, especially since it can fuel their productivity.
“I feel like I can concentrate better working in my home office than I did when I was at the office,” said Danielle Pohlke, Eastampton, NJ. She works for a global travel agency that allowed her to go virtual in 2011, after 11 years working at an on-site. “I have a five-year-old, and it gives me more time to get her ready in the morning without me rushing for a commute to my office.”
Gallant has worked from home for 11 years, giving up a 40-minute commute to Trenton, NJ. “I feel like when I went home, I got rid of some of that dead weight that held me down, like office politics,” she said. “You can focus on what you need to do.”
To promote camaraderie and sharing of best practices, Gallant’s employer hosts webinars, invites agents in when a vendor is visiting the local office, and holds one-hour conference calls every Thursday.
Teplis recently conducted a customer survey of its corporate accounts and found that scores didn’t vary for clients using virtual, on-site or office agents.
“Virtual agents are among our highest producers,” Alexander said. “They feel that they can stay more focused, there are fewer distractions, and the net result is great satisfaction from our customers.”
Transitioning from leisure to corporate is tricky
The majority of PTT’s survey respondents were working predominantly on corporate reservations, providing further insight into the difficulties of transitioning from leisure to business travel.
In fact, Walsh offered caution for leisure agents and owners considering moving a leisure agent over to corporate bookings. “They need to test their skill set and technical abilities, which many do not do. Corporate travel is highly technical. There are a lot of people who say they can do it, but cannot.”
Alexander at Teplis also advised agency owners to look at the types of corporate itineraries their agencies book before hiring a virtual agent with mostly leisure travel experience.
Most domestic trips at Teplis are self-booked, she noted. “The remaining business we have is a high-touch corporate environment. There are many, many companies involved in international travel. You need someone with a great deal of experience in corporate if you are going to place them in a virtual office,” she said, adding that Teplis prefers 10 years’ experience for an agent in that situation.
Teplis conducts an “aggressive screening program” when evaluating agents, starting with virtual tests, to test them on skills like international fare constructions. Candidates who pass that level of screening then go through interviews, and then a live test at a GDS in front of a Teplis employee.
“It is not unusual to go through 10 people who look good on paper, before you choose someone with the experience you need,” Alexander said.