Travel Agents: A Much Brighter Future Than You Might Think

by James Shillinglaw

I’ve been covering the travel agency profession for nearly a quarter century now, for two different trade publication groups. Now I’ve joined Travel Market Report as editor-at-large to do much the same thing, though I’ll also be covering the rest of travel industry as well. 

Perhaps it’s appropriate to start off this series of columns with a look at the state of the agency profession today. Over the past two weeks there have been several instances where the future of agents has once again been questioned.  

First, a Business Insider report called travel agents a “relic of the past,” using numbers from a McKinsey study purportedly showing that the number of agents in the U.S. is just half of what it was 15 years ago. The main challenge with this report, however, is that it was flat out wrong! 

As my colleague Doug Gollan pointed out in his article in Travel Market Report, the McKinsey study was based on faulty numbers that simply do not take into account the number of independent travel agents that have entered the market in the past 15 years. Indeed, the McKinsey study underestimates the size of the travel agent market by roughly 40%.  

It all racks up to yet another example of “journalism” based on very little reporting or exploration of the market. Indeed, that’s what travel agents have endured for years, fighting a slew of articles forecasting the end of their profession, which is supposedly being vanquished by the Internet and online booking. The only problem is it just isn’t true! 

Now comes the U.S. government in the form of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) with its 2016-2024 Occupational Outlook Handbook. BLS says 74,100 workers were classified as travel agents in 2014—and predicts a 12% decline for the agency profession in the next 10 years, meaning a loss of 8,700 agent jobs.  

What BLS’s numbers may fail to take into account, however, is the growing number of independent contractors in the travel agent marketplace. That fact was reported in another article in TMR by my colleague Cheryl Rosen. Indeed, most travel agency executives I speak with believe independent contractors or home-based agents now constitute a majority of the market—and that market continues to grow. 

In fact, independent contractors likely now make up the majority of all travel agents, bringing the true number of agents well above 100,000. And I’m not even counting the part-time agents who eventually may fully adopt the profession as their sole career.  

At the same time, demand for travel-agency services seems to be growing across the board. MMGY’s annual Portrait of American Travelers showed the use of agents has been growing for four consecutive years, even as the use of online travel agencies is falling, despite the billions of dollars the spend every year in marketing. In addition, recent surveys find more millennials would like to use the services of a professional travel agent, in contrast to the “common wisdom” predicting this digital generation would only book travel online.  

Turning back to the BLS survey, there is some encouraging news showing median wage for full-time travel agents is now $34,800, well above the U.S. median wage of $26,700. Travel agents make on average $37,730, and much more in some areas of the country. That may make the profession more appealing to a new generation.  

I’ll close by focusing on that new generation of travel agents. While the evidence may be purely anecdotal, it seems to me that many more millennials are turning to the travel agent trade as their profession. And why wouldn’t they? 

As a travel agent you get to do something that almost everyone likes (travel), you get to visit some of the most exotic destinations in the world, and you get paid a decent wage (or commission) to do it. Your job is to make people happy, working with folks in an industry whose very name begins with Hospitality. I can’t think of very many jobs that could be more appealing.  

So here’s to the bright future for travel agents! Despite all the naysayers over the past decade and more, travel agents have proven to be more resilient than anyone ever expected. And now they are poised to finally be recognized for the valuable and essential job they perform for the traveling public and the world economy. 

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