Consumers have seen the light and are investing in the services and expertise of travel advisors at the highest rate in the last three years. // © 2017 Getty Images
If you wanted to know the state of the travel agent profession a few years ago, a quick look at the headlines proved an act of futility. “Why Travel Agents Are Back From the Dead,” reads the headline of a 2012 Time article. Yet a year later, a CNN story declares, “The Travel Agent Is Dying, But It’s Not Yet Dead.” Peruse more recent news pieces, and yes, you’ll still find some similar contradictions; however, they now employ quite a less morbid vocabulary.
These days, the soothsayers are embracing words like “renaissance” and “revival” when casting their predictions on the fates of travel advisors and agencies. The entrepreneurial spirit that rose in the wake of the collapsed economy has, it seems, infused itself into the public at large and incited thousands to leave their traditional career paths behind and flock to the travel industry.
And why wouldn’t they? With little to no startup costs — and ample resources in the form of consortia, host agencies and travel networks — becoming a travel advisor is now easier, more inviting and more lucrative than those so-called prophets of the past could have imagined.
And 2017 in particular is shaping up to be the year of the travel agent, with many consortia and agencies reporting record growth in membership or new hires, especially when it comes to those who are new to the industry. Whether this agent boom is a spark that will fizzle or flame remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Travel agents are determined to make us believers in their power.
Have You Heard the Good News?
Of course, travel agencies are nothing new, though you wouldn’t know it from the metaphorical line around the block to join one. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent count from 2015, travel agents number 118,974, an 18 percent increase over 2014.
“Travel advisor is the hottest new thing that never went away,” said David Kolner, senior vice president of global member partnerships for Virtuoso.
The luxury advisor network is certainly on fire. More than 16,000 advisors now comprise Virtuoso, a 43 percent increase since the end of 2015, according to Kolner. He notes that 60 percent of that growth has come from the organization’s existing agencies, who are on a ferocious hiring spree. Additionally, by mid-2017, Virtuoso saw nearly 2,000 advisor inquiries on the career section of its website — a record number for the network.
“I don’t think we had that many in all of 2016,” Kolner said.
In August, during Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas, Kolner says that of the some 3,000 attendees, about 1,000 were first-time attendees, and many of those were new-to-industry agents. If that weren’t proof enough of the growing interest in the profession, Kolner also reports that in 2017 so far, nearly 100,000 Virtuoso Travel Academy courses have been completed, a 25 percent increase in the number of courses completed year over year.
“There’s this whole consumer phenomenon, particularly in North America, where people are ‘finding out’ about advisors, and there’s this incredible demand that I think is driving agency owners to look for more talent,” Kolner said. “When we surveyed all the owners in November last year about their plans for 2017, they indicated that talent was their No. 1 strategic issue or concern for the year ahead. It wasn’t terrorism, the economy or even competition; it was talent.”
Signature Travel Network’s member agencies are also on the lookout for fresh blood. About three years ago, the organization conducted an in-depth survey of its members about what they were most interested in when strategically planning for the future. Hiring new-to-industry staff, particularly younger people, was identified as the No. 1 priority, says Gina Weyer, president of member services and training for Signature.
Host agency Avoya Travel, too, is seeing a bump in membership. According to Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales for Avoya, the number of new Independent Agencies (IAs) joining the Avoya network has more than doubled from last year and is growing at the fastest pace in over a decade, with annual network growth up 178 percent in the third quarter of 2017 over the same period last year. And more than 50 percent of Avoya’s IAs come from its New-To-Travel program, which debuted last year to provide those without any previous experience in selling travel with the education and resources needed to start their own business.
“Interest in joining Avoya has never been higher,” Koepf said. “Since launching the New-To-Travel program, IAs have experienced just as much success as those joining with years of industry experience — many achieving as much as $100,000 in monthly sales in their first six months of affiliating.”
It’s a story of demand growth that’s fueling the need for more agents to meet that growing demand, says Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).
Kerby notes that 70 percent of the organization’s membership base, which includes consortia, host agencies and independent agencies, has reported that business is better this year than in 2016.
According to ASTA’s most recent Financial Benchmarking Report, at the end of 2015, 81 percent of agency survey respondents indicated that their revenues either increased (64 percent) or stayed the same (17 percent) when compared to their 2014 revenues. Similarly, respondents reported increases in sales (82 percent), transactions (80 percent) and number of clients (85 percent), with 20 percent or less of agencies experiencing declines in those areas.
It’s the holiest of trifectas: As consumer demand for travel agents has risen, it has created a need for agencies to hire as well as a flourishing excitement to become a travel advisor. And agents are a hipper, hotter commodity nowadays for a number of factors, not least of which includes an improved image.
“The travel agent industry has been repositioned as a fun one to work in; it’s not a dying industry,” Virtuoso’s Kolner said.
He points to better media coverage about the importance of using a travel agent, including marketing efforts from ASTA. Weyer of Signature points to ASTA’s marketing, as well, noting that the association has played a vital role in turning the consumer image of agents around with its advertisement campaigns on The Travel Channel’s website and with videos such as “Travel Agents Taking Off,” an online news and current affairs-type program.
And, indeed, the public is demanding expert travel planners. Last June, ASTA debuted a report showing that consumers were utilizing travel agents at the highest rate in three years (22 percent), and that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of respondents believed using an agent made their overall trip experience better. The survey of 14,000 U.S. households also revealed that advisors save consumers an average of $452 per trip and four hours in travel planning,
At the end of August, ASTA announced that it is launching the ASTA Verified Travel Advisor program — a move that will, no doubt, help organization members further cement “travel agent” as a credible, viable career. According to Erika Richter, director of communications for ASTA, the program sets itself apart from other certifications because it offers education in areas where ASTA has a high level of expertise: in U.S. Department of Transportation regulations and ethical standards.
And navigating the complexities of travel, especially when it involves planning an expensive international trip, is one of the reasons consumers turn to agents, Richter points out. According to the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office, U.S. citizens’ spending on outbound travel between January and May 2017 increased 5.8 percent compared to the same time period in 2016. The number of trips to overseas destinations increased across the board in 2016 versus 2015.
Certainly in today’s world — where each day brings new travel warnings and climate change threatens to close off certain destinations to tourism — consumers want more than ever to avoid FOMO, or “fear of missing out.”
“The aspirational consumer is looking to experience more out of life and is willing to pay for higher-quality products and services,” said Wendy Burk, founder and CEO of San Diego-based Cadence, a Virtuoso host agency and branch of Tzell Travel Group. “Fear of missing out on their ideal experiences leads them to value the input of a passionate professional who has their best interests in mind.”
According to Burk, Cadence has had a 40 percent increase in independent travel advisors within the past few years, and about one-third of these advisors were new to the industry when they joined the agency.
“Since travel is the one thing that truly connects us to the world and improves quality of life at the same time, it is exactly the type of career that is glamorous to someone who aspires to live a meaningful life,” she said. “Travel is an upbeat industry for passionate people and unites us through meaningful moments with global friends.”
Leap of Faith
While the image of agents continues to reenergize, a large bulk of the advisor workforce is retiring, so filling in this gap — especially with those who can bring in fresh perspectives — is essential, says Philip Banks, president of Dallas- and Chicago-based Legacy Travel, a Signature member.
“You’ve got this problem where this industry is so old, and the people who are working in it are aging,” he said.
“Companies like mine have been yelling this for several years: We need to hire people new to the industry.”
In fact, Legacy hires only newbies, which Banks says has a snowball effect: Since everyone begins on the same playing field, there’s no resentment or animosity from current staffers toward new hires, and there’s a culture of nurturing the newcomers, which, in turn, makes it easier to bring on more employees.
At Cadence, Burk feels that a symbiosis of old and new helps to prepare the next generation to lead the industry.
“It is undeniably great for our culture to bring in fresh blood with enthusiasm, new ideas and eagerness,” she said. “About 50 percent of our internal employee base is made up of millennials, many of whom are recent graduates. They help us implement new support and technology offerings for advisors while they learn tips and tricks from seasoned advisors with more than 20 years of experience. This dynamic is also a natural progression for advisors who may be ready to phase out into retirement and need someone like-minded to pass their torch to.”
Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing for Travel Planners International (TPI), a marketing and support agency that partners with independent travel agents, is also a firm believer in injecting new life into the industry.
“Once the more seasoned agents start retiring, we need newer agents to fill the gap,” she said. “And newer agents are able to ‘niche’ and are passionate about servicing a specific community of people.”
TPI has recruited approximately 300 new-to-industry agents this year, Lee says. And although many are millennials, the majority are in their late 40s and early 50s, leaving behind careers ranging from lawyers to government workers. To lure these newcomers, TPI has changed its entire marketing strategy, particularly focusing on using social media, to attract those with a more entrepreneurial mindset.
“The industry was built with small-business owners opening brick-and-mortar offices,” Lee said. “When the industry shifted because of the change in policy with airlines, many of those businesses closed and the look of an agent changed — many moved to home-based businesses. Somewhere along the way, the marketing of these agents turned from business owner to independent contractor. We recognized this and shifted our branding to attract smart, savvy, hard-charging entrepreneurs. Agents entering this industry are looking to start their own business.”
Rachel Mooney is one such agent. The owner of Birmingham, Ala.-based Changing Your Latitude Travel, an independent agency in the Avoya Travel Network, Mooney began her post-college career in financial planning. After several years of successfully running a sales team responsible for training, promoting sales campaigns and supporting insurance agents that sold retirement products, however, she was ready for a change.
“I thought travel agents were a thing of the past due to the internet, but as I researched, I found the opposite was true,” Mooney said. “Since millennials value their time and advice of experts, this career is coming back. I was excited that I can use my strengths to do something that brings me joy every day. I also loved that I could fulfill my entrepreneurial spirit with virtually no startup costs.”
A Hire Power
This enterprising fervor is compelling everyone from millennials starting their first career to lawyers seeking a new path to enter the travel industry. But while “travel agent” has a far more seductive ring to it than in recent years, it’s important for agencies and networks to ensure that candidates also have a lust for hard work, attention to detail, damage control and ethics, Burk says.
“Do not hire people new to the industry just because they love travel,” Kolner added. “If you breathe air, you probably love travel; that’s not enough. Hire people who love to sell. You can always work with a host agency who can help you with the operational side, but if you don’t have a natural passion for selling, it’s probably going to be a square peg in a round hole.”
For Banks of Legacy Travel, hiring is all about disposition.
“Eighty-five percent of what I’m looking for is personality,” he said. “Are they fun? Are they likeable? Beyond that, I’m looking for organizational skills, competitiveness and a tech-savvy nature.”
And don’t be so busy with business that you forget to light up the “Now Hiring” sign, Weyer says.
“Have your website and social media activity be clear that you’re hiring, and that the travel industry is welcoming new hires,” she said. “Make sure your clients know, too: Word-of-mouth and referrals are still the No. 1 resource for getting new hires.”
She additionally notes the importance of providing thorough training and mentorship for new-to-industry agents, which she says can significantly help with retention.
And that, of course, is the best way to spread the gospel of travel agents: Passionate advisors who instill loyalty in clients, who share their experiences with their network, which, in turn, elevates the industry overall.
“So is this the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?” Kolner asks of the agent boom. “We really believe it’s the end of the beginning — which means there’s a great deal of success still to come.”