Millennials Craig Hsu (left), Katelyn O’Shaughnessy and Mimi Cassidy were among the top-performing travel agents at GTM West. // © 2014 Eugene Ko
Feature image (above): GTM West was held at the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa in Tucson, Ariz. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Seven years ago, when millennial travel agent Sarah Nelson Wandrey began working at her family’s travel agency, things looked bleak.
“For the first few years, I was scared,” she said. “I would look around a room and think, ‘Am I going to have a job in the future?’”
At one travel agent event four years ago, Wandrey was one of three people under the age of 40 out of 700 travel agents.
Despite the exclusivity of GTM West — to attend, agents had to undergo a rigorous application and referral process that included proving annual sales of at least $800,000 — about 20 percent of attendees were under the age of 40.
“In the last few years, a lot of young and engaging people have joined the industry,” Wandrey said. “It gives me a feeling of stability.”
And young agents beget more young agents.
Mimi Cassidy, the 32-year-old co-owner of Moraga Travel in Moraga, Calif., excitedly shared that her agency recently hired a new travel agent: straight out of college and inexperienced as an agent.
Bringing young people into the industry was a major priority for her agency, but it also makes sense due to the way she and her co-owner and brother, Ryan McGredy (who also is president of the American Society of Travel Agents’ Young Professionals Society), do business.
“Our agency does a lot of tech-forward stuff, like Google Hangouts,” she said. “Our suppliers love it.”
Agencies seeking out young agents are few and far between, said Wandrey. She, and other young agents at GTM West, such as Craig Hsu, vice president of Travel Design USA Inc. in Torrance, Calif., entered into the profession because it was a family business.
“The way I got started is that I had a lousy job in Arizona,” said Wandrey. “I asked my dad, who owns his own agency, if there were any travel schools in Arizona or California.”
A month and no response later, her dad finally came back to her with a job offer.
“He twisted my arm to come join him at the agency,” she said.
Though it ended up working out for her — she now co-owns the agency with her father and grandmother — she realizes the need for training and hopes to launch an internship program within the agency.
“There are very few travel agent education opportunities available,” she said.
But, the counterargument has been that not enough young people are interested in the career. According to Betty Bradley, manager at Mayfield Travel, registration at the travel program at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada, has gone down 65 percent in the last five years.
“We are trying to find a way to make the travel industry sexy again, to get younger people to want to sell travel,” said Bradley. “That’s want we need.”
Yet interested parties have not exactly been embraced by travel agencies, either.
One millennial agent, Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, had to muscle her way into the industry. Her story of entry is a long tale of persistence and passion, involving creating fake business cards, crashing industry events and generally not losing faith. She even applied for an entry-level agent position three times before getting hired, offering her tech expertise in exchange for training.
O’Shaughnessy, who still works as a frontline agent at TravelStore in Los Angeles, has gone on to help make the itinerary creation process easier for all agents through her mobile app TripScope. And as more young agents actively demonstrate the new life they can breathe into the industry, other agents are taking note.
Dave Holman recently started his business, Bridges & Holman Worldwide Travel, and hired a young group of independent contractors. Unlike most other agencies, the median age of his employees falls in the 30s, and most of his business comes from the Facebook fan groups he has started.
“All of my agents are tech-savvy and they are all younger than me: 32, 30 — there’s one who is 23,” he said. “He has four open bookings right now — high-dollar stuff.”
Holman advises his agents — most inexperienced in travel — to learn about destinations and products through travel publications, webinars and supplier and industry travel agent programs. A former sales trainer, he focuses on teaching his employees how to sell.
“A few years ago, I wouldn’t have trained someone, but my whole idea has changed. I see the need,” said Janette Webber, owner of Avanti Travel in Redding, Calif. “I don’t want us to be a dying breed.”