This is the first in a series on staffing challenges facing travel agencies.
With the U.S. economy improving and vacation travel on the rebound, leisure travel agencies are facing their toughest staffing challenges since before the recession.
It’s not only strong demand that’s creating staffing issues. Leisure agencies are increasingly challenged to keep their current sales stars from departing for opportunities elsewhere.
One factor is the explosive growth of host agencies and the resulting growth in opportunities for talented leisure agents. Another factor is suppliers luring away retail agencies’ top salespeople.
“The competition for talent is great,” said Doug Walsh, director of marketing for HotTravelJobs.com, a travel industry jobs placement service. Retail travel sellers are adding jobs for both corporate and leisure agents, according to Walsh.
Agents are moving around more
Shirley Caserta, president of Kansas City-based Travel Employment Agency, said it is becoming harder for agencies to add or replace both in-house agents and independent contractors.
Retaining high producers is also growing more difficult, Caserta said.
“There’s more movement going on in leisure travel than there’s been in awhile, with more opportunities for agents who have built up a strong clientele that they can take with them.
“At the same time, agencies are doing better now, so they need more people.”
ICs in high demand
The proliferation of host agencies in recent years is contributing to leisure agencies’ staffing difficulties.
“There’s a lot of competition for high-producing independent contractors now,” said Martha Gaughen, vice president of Brownell Travel, a leisure agency headquartered in Birmingham, Ala.
Gaughen noted that competition among host agencies has grown dramatically since Brownell’s host division got started as Sterling Travel more than 25 years ago.
“It was once one of the few hosting agencies in the country, but now they’re all over the place. So now there are many more options for people.” (Today, Brownell Travel’s host division has 62 independent contractors; they comprise about half the agency’s workforce.)
“Also, independent contractors are taken a lot more seriously by vendors and suppliers, so they have more clout” – giving them more freedom to jump host agencies.
Productive independent contractors and staff agents with top sales skills can find opportunities throughout the travel industry these days, according to Caserta.
“If you have a talented salesperson at your agency, you might find that a supplier will go after them. If you’ve got a good person, you really have to put your finger on what keeps them happy these days,” she said.
Dearth of young candidates
The much-talked-about lack of young people coming into the industry is also exacerbating agencies’ staffing problems.
“Because the travel agency industry has gotten a bad rap in the past 10 years, fewer people are going into it,” Caserta said. “A lot of the travel schools have closed. At the same time, the baby boomers are starting to move out.”
Talent moves up & on
Walsh also sees the aging industry as a key reason for the staffing dilemma.
As agents grow more seasoned, they are more likely to move up into agency managerial positions or, if they have a following, become independent contractors, he said.
While agencies continue to seek seasoned professionals, Walsh said an increasing number are looking for newer agents with two or three years of experience.
“They like the idea of a fresh face who can add valuable tech savvy to their office environment.” (See sidebar.)
“Getting in a newcomer is difficult though,” Walsh added. “Agencies are scared to take the time to train a newcomer and then have them leave.”
Next time: How leisure agencies can retain staff.