The latest in a Travel Market Report series on travel agency staffing challenges.
Corporate travel agencies are finding it more difficult than ever to find qualified agents given the dearth of training programs.
Demand for new staff was traditionally met by hiring former agents returning to the business or newly-minted travel school graduates. But neither of these groups has the up-to-date GDS skills called for in the current travel environment, according to corporate staffing experts and corporate agency executives.
No surprise then that most corporate agencies limit their hiring to agents who already know the business, said Doug Walsh, president of HotTravelJobs.com in New Egypt, N.J. As in many skilled professions, it’s nearly impossible to get hired without experience and just as hard to get experience without being hired.
“Beyond that top tier, there is no place to learn the skills needed to be a good corporate agent, never mind an outstanding agent,” Walsh. “The typical corporate agent is old enough to be contemplating retirement in the foreseeable future.”
While there are plenty of former agents who would like to get back into the business, their GDS skills are out of date, according to Gayle Walsh, head of Personal Travel Consultants, a long-time temporary placement agency for corporate travel agents.
Wanted: GDS expertise
Leisure travel sellers can thrive without GDS access, but the corporate world demands a level of detailed information that can still be found most directly and accurately on green screens that require an intimate knowledge of arcane codes.
Michael Steiner, executive vice president of Ovation Travel Corp., said the integrated interfaces touted by Sabre, Amadeus and Travelport hide the green screen, but have not replaced it.
“Technology is getting better, but corporate agents still need detailed knowledge and expertise with the GDS,” Steiner said. “The travel agent environment is very different from a few years ago.
“It will be even richer two or three years from now. It is a matter of getting software up to speed with the new generation of hardware. But this is still a GDS-centric world.”
Today’s green screen
That may seem like good news for corporate agents who left the business a few years ago. But the green screen before the recession is not the green screen of 2013.
“You may have been a Sabre expert in 2008 and 2009, but the Sabre you see today has been transformed,” said Gayle Walsh. “If your GDS skills are three or four years out of date, nobody wants you because they can’t use you without significant training. The travel schools that used to train and re-train agents disappeared years ago.”
No place to learn
The leisure travel sector doesn’t have quite the same problem.
ASTA, the Travel Institute and other organizations offer a variety of training and certification programs. GBTA, ACTE and other business travel groups also do so, but they focus on education and training for corporate travel managers and executives, not for corporate travel agents.
“We have our own training school, but only the biggest 10 or 15 agencies can afford to do that,” said Goran Gligorovic, executive vice president for Omega World Travel.
“We try to train and recruit our own staff, but it’s not just training and recruiting agents. We show them a career path that starts with a travel agent and takes them to managing travel and beyond. Helping people build a future is very important in attracting the best and in retaining them.”
Dilemma for small agencies
So what can smaller agencies do?
Curt Cobler, president of Infinity Travel in Houston, considered starting his own training program but with just nine agents on staff, Infinity doesn't have the resources to pull experienced people off the front line and put them in training positions.
“What agents have to know in this job is phenomenal,” Cobler said. “The GDSs may have menu-driven systems, but what happens when the client needs something that isn’t covered by the menu? You have to know how to work the system manually and that’s not something you can learn in a few weeks.”
True enough, said Michael Steiner, executive vice president of Ovation Travel. The company, with about 600 employees, conducts a training program. But it does not run a travel school where would-be corporate agents can learn to navigate the green screen world.
“We are very discerning when it comes to hiring because we have a very demanding client base,” Steiner said. “We don’t teach our new hires how to be top corporate agents. They already have those skills. We teach them our secret sauce for service, bring them up to speed on the way we operate, give them our philosophy.”
No easy fix
There is no indication that travel schools are coming back into vogue. And when younger entrepreneurs do enter the travel business, it’s often to sell their passion for a particular destination or activity.
Leisure travel agents aren’t the answer either.
Even the best leisure agents don’t easily make the transition to the far more demanding world of corporate travel. Leisure travel focuses on personalities, activities and preferences. Business travel involves complex itineraries, international destinations and schedules that brook no delay.
“The easy itineraries, the traveler who has to go from Chicago to San Francisco, they book themselves online,” Steiner said. “Business travelers who prefer to work offline have very specific needs that cannot be met except by a travel expert. They are looking for value and expertise. That’s why they call.”
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