It’s no secret that the travel agent community is aging. But why is the profession having such a hard time bringing younger talent onboard?
It’s a three-word answer: image, education and money.
Those three issues have created a perfect storm that is keeping younger people away from the profession, industry members told Travel Market Report.
The need to address them is critical. Unless the travel agency industry figures out how to attract young people, eventually there will be too few retail travel professionals to meet the needs of the traveling public.
A tarnished image
“Travel agents have an image problem,” said Jason Coleman, president of Los Angeles-based Jason Coleman Inc.
“We’re not attractive to consumers. And if we’re not attractive, why would anyone want to become one?” asked Coleman, who chairs ASTA's Young Professionals Society (YPS).
Consumer media hasn’t helped. “How many times have we heard that the Internet is going to replace us,” asked Kari Thomas, president of Will Travel Inc. in Langhorne, Penn., and a founding member of the Young Professionals Society.
Dan Ilves, vice president, sales and marketing for TravelStore, a Calif-based agency, agreed. “When the airlines capped commissions everybody said, ‘Oh well, that’s the death of travel agents.’ That’s still somewhat prevalent.”
Lack of visibility
With the growth of home-based agents, there also are fewer storefront agencies to remind consumers that agents still exist.
“When you think of travel agencies in the ’70s to ’90s, they were very visible,” Coleman said. “You could find a travel agency in virtually every mall. Now consumers drive down the street, and they have no idea there are two or three travel agents in the apartment building they passed.
“Travel agencies have disappeared from Main Street, so consumers don’t think of us anymore.”
Ryan McGredy of Moraga Travel in Moraga, Calif., said there’s also not enough visibility “of the idea of a travel agent as a profession. A lot of younger folks may not even know that it exists.”
Exacerbating the problem
Very little has been done to address the image issue, industry members said. “We haven’t been a very good promoter of what a great career this industry offers,” Chris Russo, chair of ASTA, told Travel Market Report.
The industry may even have made the image perception worse.
“For years we shot ourselves in the foot,” Russo said.
“When your friends say, ‘You have the most awesome job,’ we go into a five-minute rant about how little we’re paid, and don’t you know when we go on these trips, we have to see 37 hotels in three days?”
Thomas agreed. “We’re out there saying, ‘Why would you want to get into this industry? It’s so hard and the airlines are doing this and that.’”
Lack of schools
Even when a young person decides he or she wants to become a travel agent, figuring out how to get there isn’t easy. Many of today’s established agents got their start by attending a travel agency program at a local college, but today few such programs exist.
“Because there are no more travel schools, there’s really no venue for young people to even learn about what a travel professional does,” Russo said.
Julia P. Douglas, owner of Jet Set World Travel in Chicago, said she has found “tremendous interest” in the travel industry, “but a general lack of understanding as to how to get into the business.”
‘No clear path’
Coleman noted that “there is no clear path to becoming a travel agent.”
“If you want to be a doctor, you go to medical school. If you want to be an accountant, you usually go through a business program. If you want to become a travel agent – ”
Most new entrants to the industry learn on the job. But this creates a problem, because agencies often don’t have the time to guide new agents.
“Most agencies basically don’t have the resources or the discipline to create a mentoring, developing organization,” said Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso.
Another issue is that agents don’t always have a talent for training new entrants. “In most cases the travel agencies I’ve seen are run by people who are really good travel agents but don’t necessarily know how to train someone,” McGredy added.
“And it’s definitely not a field where you can bring someone in and just say, ‘Learn on your own.’ You need to learn with hands-on experience, but with someone there to keep you from making big mistakes.”
Added Jet Set’s Douglas: “In an age of tremendous market cycles, taking on a novice in a salaried position for six to 12 months while training is not always financially prudent or feasible.
“Owners want talent but do not have the time to train. With the steep learning curve, the commitment and perspective must be long-term, but many of the next generation hires covet the immediate gratification of the sizable sale,” Douglas said.
Not enough money
Immediate monetary gratification is rarely attainable in the travel agency industry.
Though many agents make a comfortable living, the hard truth is that the average salary for a U.S. travel agent is around $30,000.
Furthermore, unless a new agent is salaried, it can take several months before any type of regular income crosses her desk. Many young workers find this difficult to accept, and turnover among young agents is not uncommon.
This was the experience of Donna Johnson, president of Texas-based Red Bird Travel Plus. She groomed a younger worker for three years to take over her business. But he was never able to make enough money to suit his needs.
“He left and is now working as a parking valet. He is making more money, and the job doesn’t require near the diligence of being a travel agent,” Johnson said.
Inadequate pay is the overriding issue, Upchurch said. “Ten years ago, the average salary of a travel agent in the U.S. was maybe $29,000. Today it’s $30,000-something. It’s been very, very low.
“And if you look at the advisors that do make a lot more, it takes way too long for them to get there.”
Troublesome lag time
It takes a long time for agents to start making money, and that’s a problem, Coleman agreed.
“You’ve got an average of a six to eight months lag time between doing the work and actually getting paid. If you’re the bread winner, and you don’t have a big savings to fall back on, how are you making money in your first through sixth months?”
McGredy told Travel Market Report that he believes the low annual salary is driven by the segment of the industry that is semi-retired, which is sizable.
Coleman said the industry needs to move away from a commission model and toward a net rate system.
Next week: Travel Market Report explores the generational issues at play.