The Quest for Young Travel Agents

The Quest for Young Travel Agents

As the travel agent majority approaches retirement, recruiting and retaining young talent is critical By: Skye Mayring
Young travel agents have enormous potential, but industry leaders need to equip them with tools for success. // © 2013 ratch
Young travel agents have enormous potential, but industry leaders need to equip them with tools for success. // © 2013 ratch

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Read what top young travel agents think about addressing these challenges.

Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar Tours USA, isn’t one to hide from a problem.

During this year’s inaugural Blue Sky Symposium in Hollywood, Fla., held in conjunction with Global Travel Marketplace and presented by ASTA’s Young Professionals Society (YPS), Wiseman shared a startling statistic: An estimated 30-40 percent of his top-producing agents plan to retire within the next five years.

Trafalgar’s situation is a microcosm of a much larger issue that the travel industry is facing. According to the report, “The Once and Future Agent: PhoCusWright’s Travel Agency Distribution Landscape 2009-2013,” released by PhoCusWright in March of last year, more than half of leisure retail storefront agents were approaching or had reached retirement age, while only 5 percent had become a travel agent within the past five years. To break it down further, just 11 percent of leisure storefront agents were 45 years old or younger and only 2 percent were 35 or younger.

“The issue is clear, and all of our partners are talking about it,” Wiseman told TravelAge West. “We are losing a wealth of knowledge in our retail agent partner offices, and we cannot instantly replace it. It will take time to build the confidence of new agents.”

For many consumers, the perception persists that travel agents are relics of a bygone era, replaced once and for all by the rise of the Internet. This stigma is not only keeping young people from pursuing careers in travel, but it’s also challenging the young travel professionals who are still establishing themselves in the industry.

“As a young agent, it’s hard dealing with the fact that most of our peers think that our jobs don’t exist anymore,” said Ryan McGredy, president of ASTA’s YPS and owner of Moraga Travel in Moraga, Calif. “And then there’s the challenge that we’re working in an industry that is structured for a target audience that’s 20 to 40 years older than we are. They are operating using old rules and old tools that don’t apply to us, and that can be very frustrating.

YPS — a chapter of ASTA, exclusive to members under the age of 40 — was established in 2002 to facilitate networking, education and career development. In addition to organizing events, such as the Blue Sky Symposium, YPS works with suppliers, legislators and other sectors that affect the travel industry and advises them about how to best serve future travel professionals.

“Our goal is also to be a presence for young people in the industry. They can turn to us and realize that they are not alone,” said McGredy. “There are a bunch of us who are trying to make change, and there are forward-looking suppliers who are changing their product, upping technology and are trying to be a conduit. We want to connect the suppliers who know how to work with young agents.”

Getting Organized
Relationships between young agents and travel suppliers are also strengthening thanks to the efforts of new organizations that target the under 40 crowd. Young Travel Professionals (YTP), which launched in November 2011, is gaining momentum with chapters in New York, San Francisco, Boston, London, Vancouver and Seattle as well as its new Mentor Program, which pairs travel veterans with YTP members who are either already in the industry or have a strong interest in entering the industry.

“One of the biggest trends that we found was that most people we knew were falling into the travel industry by accident, and our board felt the need to change that by creating a solid network and putting mentorship programs into place in order to attract young talent to this field,” said YTP cofounder Lee Edelstein.

According to Edelstein, the goal of YTP is to foster communication, collaboration and professional development for the next generation of travel industry leaders from diverse backgrounds and expertise. Another mission of the organization is to educate college students and recent graduates about the many career paths in travel.

Since its debut in February 2012, Millennials in Travel has grown rapidly into a national career-development organization with chapters in Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. Membership is generally open to those who are born after 1975 and are committed to the travel industry.

“We recognized the need to create a community to address the gap in the industry between the baby-boomer generation and the millennial generation,” said Joshua Smith, director of strategic development for Millennials in Travel. “Because of this deficit, millennials will be in leadership positions a lot sooner than our predecessors, so we want to have a strong community in place.”

After learning that one-third of its membership was looking to change jobs in the next two years, the organization began developing an Industry Opportunities program to help match members with their ideal travel jobs. The program will debut in December.

“As a generation, we only want to stay in a position as long as we can provide value and receive value, so there is more mobility than with previous generations,” said Smith.

A Year of Change
The need to reinvigorate our industry, cultivate new talent and retain young travel agents has become increasingly top of mind among consortia, many of which have launched their own young professional programs this year. Travel Leaders, for one, has taken an aggressive approach, introducing an extensive training program, Travel Leaders of Tomorrow, this past April.

“While there is an increasing number of travel professionals nearing retirement age, there is also a dearth of quality travel schools available to train the next generation of travel agents,” said Heather Kindred, program director for Travel Leaders of Tomorrow. “Within Travel Leaders Group, we recognized the need to replace our own travel professionals who will be exiting the industry. Since no one else was stepping up to the plate to inspire and train new talent, we determined that we had to.”

The curriculum primarily takes place in a virtual campus environment with an opportunity for fam trips, agency internships and/or a job with one of Travel Leaders’ wholly-owned, franchised and member travel agencies.

In the same vein, Signature Travel Network organized its Young Advisor Community (YAC) earlier this year and will host its first face-to-face event in Las Vegas during its annual sales meeting this month. According to Signature’s marketing manager Nicole Rush, who is heading up YAC, its opportunities and events are geared toward networking within the membership and with preferred partners, as well as engaging young members in Signature’s technology, training and marketing.

During Vacation.com’s International Conference and Trade Show in Orlando, Fla., this past June, the consortium kicked off its under 40 networking program for members and plans to expand the program at next year’s conference with roundtable discussions, activities, panels and a cocktail reception to connect young agents and suppliers.

With its NextGen program, which brings together agency owners and managers to focus on recruitment, Virtuoso has long been an advocate of the young travel professional. The consortium also hosts the Virtuoso Difference Event, a two-day training program and job fair for those interested in pursuing careers in travel. Recently, however, Virtuoso has placed an emphasis on working with colleges and universities.

“This year, we invited students from Cornell University’s master’s program to attend Virtuoso Travel Week to gain an understanding of the Virtuoso network and the potential for a career in travel,” said Becky Powell, Virtuoso’s vice president of member sales and service, U.S. and Canada. “Many of our members work with local colleges and universities as guest speakers and in curriculum development. In the past, we have also invited professors to attend Virtuoso Week to gain an understanding of the current environment in the travel industry.”

Action Steps
While there are resources available for young agents we, as a community of travel professionals, have to do our part too. According to Trafalgar’s Wiseman, an obvious and easy first step is to advocate the profession.

“So many people who work in travel say that the work is too hard and the pay too little. That simply does not speak well for the industry,” he said. “We all need to tell the same story the same way, and we will have a much greater impact.”

The other challenge is creating a company culture that supports a different generation of workers.

“Millennials don’t want to do the same thing for an extended period of time. Companies need to be very creative with their strategies to provide this generation with career opportunities and building blocks or this age workforce will look elsewhere,” said Wiseman.

James Shearer, international chair of ASTA YPS and director of progress for Travel Masters, agrees.

“The problem isn’t attracting young agents, it’s keeping them. They stay with suppliers, consortia, online travel agencies and big brand agencies but it is the traditional travel agencies that are having the greatest difficulty holding onto their young talent,” Shearer said. “My advice really stems around each business’ individual management style and the practices they put in place. Are young people really being welcomed the way they should or is the business being run the way it always has been? Business owners and managers are just like agents — they must adapt with the changes in the industry.”

Indeed, an agency has to be comfortable with change in order to bring in millennial workers and keep them from taking their talents elsewhere. This is a generation that is able to influence their peers (a market that makes up some 80 million people in the U.S. alone) more effectively than any other generation. Millennials also innately posses the ability to keep up with the ever-changing social media landscape that has helped define them. To ignore these opportunities for growth would be a grave oversight for an agency.

“Ask yourself how a young person can grow your business model and if you want to have an agency that’s around for the next generation. Then you can create job opportunities that match young people,” McGredy advised.

Agencies should also rethink their training and career development programs for younger agents, find ways for them to be proactive in obtaining new business and empower them with the tools they need for continued success.

“Some agency owners follow the traditional model of only providing commission on bookings with little business development assistance. Millennial agents have a unique skill set of reaching an entirely new audience in a completely different way than what has previously been successful, and savvy agency owners will find a way to leverage those skills,” said Smith of Millennials in Travel.

The new generation of travel professionals has enormous potential — as long as the rest of the industry is open to progress.

“Despite how new some [agents] are, I am seeing some amazing productivity from them,” said Wiseman. “They understand service and they truly believe that with hard work they will succeed  — and they do.”

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