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Okay, we get it already. The media loves to vilify us, and we’re often the punch line around the water cooler. We’re millennials — those born in the 1980s and ’90s — and we hear you. We’ve been called everything from “Generation Me” and “Trophy Kids” to the “ADD Generation” and “Generation Why?”
Contrary to popular belief, however, millennials are more than social media-addicted navel-gazers. We’re digital natives and entrepreneurs, highly motivated self-starters who believe in working smarter, not just working harder. And we’re coming to an office near you.
In six years, the millennial generation will account for roughly 50 percent of the global workforce and, by 2025, nearly 75 percent of the workforce will be made up of millennials, according to a recent Business and Professional Women’s Foundation study. Clearly, as the travel agent majority reaches retirement age, agencies aiming for continued success will need to find effective ways to recruit, train and retain young employees.
“Not only does our survival as a thriving business rest on recruiting young planners, we also want to capture younger clients,” said Lanny Zechar, senior vice president of Altour. “In travel, clients often like to book with someone in their age range. They have more confidence that someone their own age will be able to relate to what they want.”
Denise Canon, president and CEO of Travel Concepts, Inc., has embraced the younger workforce as well. She has cherry-picked a small staff in her Kansas City, Kan., office that is mostly made up of millennials.
“Millennials are typically out-of-the-box thinkers,” said Canon. “They are very savvy and have already had unique travel experiences, which have fueled their passion for travel — and they are motivated to make money.”
A job in the travel industry is not a hard sell. Travel planning can be a dream job for millennial workers, especially if it offers flexibility and travel perks. According to a recent JWT Intelligence report, 70 percent of millennial respondents said that they want to visit every country, and 75 percent said they want to travel as much as possible. The most challenging aspect of recruiting young talent might just be getting the word out.
Reeling Them In
Where are successful agencies finding millennial workers? The answer is, well, just about everywhere.
“Look around you. There are potential travel agent superstars everywhere,” said Yves Leuenberger, owner and vice president of Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz. “Talk to anyone that impresses you with their customer service skills, whether it’s in person or over the phone. With agents, we think their attitude is the key ingredient to their — and our — success. When you find someone with a great attitude, reel them in.”
Canon of Travel Concepts suggests creating a profile of the employee the agency wants to find and reaching out to all available resources, including industry sales representatives, friends and travel organizations. Networking events are also effective places to promote your company and find new talent.
“Before recruiting, engage in conversation and get to know one another,” said Canon. “It’s important for me to know why someone would want to be in the travel business, and if it’s someone already in the industry, get to know their specialties and credentials. It’s also critically important for me to know they are passionate about people.”
According to Leuenberger, Avenues of the World Travel works closely with Northern Arizona University’s School of Hotel & Restaurant Management program, the chamber of commerce and the county to find fresh faces. Through the university, the agency has been able to coordinate flexible paid internship programs and recruit when needed.
Internships are an excellent way for both parties to test the water, but agencies have to be proactive. Sarah Nelson Wandrey, vice president of corporate communications for Atlantic Pacific Travel/A World of Travel in Mesa, Ariz., knows this well. As a young travel professional, she recognized that her peers lacked industry awareness and has taken it upon herself to launch an internship program at her agency that will debut as early as spring 2015. To that end, she has been cold calling local schools and targeting hospitality programs specifically related to tourism development and management, resort and hotel management and sustainable tourism.
“The point of our internship program is to let college students know that travel agencies exist and that travel planning can be a lucrative career path that they probably hadn’t thought of,” Wandrey said. “My advice for agencies interested in creating a program is to write out what they want the intern to learn and what he/she should accomplish each week. Create a workbook so that both the intern and the agency can track progress. And don’t just have them filing and going on office runs. Have interns talk to clients and shadow agents so that they can really get a feel of what it’s like.”
Train and Retain
Providing new recruits with the necessary tools and training is critical to their success as a travel consultant and to the agency’s bottom line. After all, the last thing an agency wants is for their new employee to jump ship, although it can happen. This was the case with 23-year-old Alison (not her real name, as she wished to remain anonymous), who began working as a travel agent immediately after college but recently left to pursue a career in real estate.
“I learn best when I’m hands on,” Alison explained. “Other than webinars, shadowing and just plain research, I didn’t really have training. If my agency had taken the time to understand how I learn, they probably would still have me and [business would] be booming.”
Rachel Haile, a millennial owner of The Trip Studio in Chicago, finds situations like this one troublesome for the future of travel.
“This is the biggest challenge in the travel industry today,” said Haile. “Agencies need more people, because they’re getting too busy to handle the work on their own, so they hire someone but don’t take the time to train them properly. [Grooming] new talent requires top-to-bottom training, consistent meetings, feedback, sales tools and honest-to-goodness mentoring. Consider every minute you spend with that person — and away from your regular work — to be an investment in the long run.”
In Haile’s previous position as head of sales at Down Under Endeavours, she developed a comprehensive training program for new hires that included a seminar series on booking travel step by step, separate dedicated training sessions about the sales process, hands-on training with the agent’s own clients and advisement on how to handle the particular needs of their clients.
“Online training and webinars are really best when agents already have their legs. It should supplement and refine how they do things, rather than start them anew,” she said. “Early in their training, one-on-one mentoring is best — even when learning the GDS. Just like the way you try to read clients’ needs and ask questions, keep the training process individual, personal, engaging and responsive.”
The millennial generation thrives on consistent feedback, whether that’s encouragement, a constructive critique or acknowledgement of accomplishments, big and small. In order to keep new employees on track and engaged with their work, supervisors should plan on setting measurable goals, such as percentage of leads closed or commission earned, and check in with their new hires at set times to review progress.
“Take note of a person’s major wins, like the time they recommended something the client loved but never would’ve known about on their own,” suggested Haile. “If your agents work together in an office, have a white board where they can get credit for reaching their quota, closing a new client or other markers of success. It builds self-confidence and motivates the team to keep up with each other.”
Haile is also a proponent of in-house competitions in which the prize is cash, gift cards or even a bottle of wine. Small competitions throughout the year are easy ways to motivate all employees to succeed and don’t cost much for the agency to coordinate.
“Just make sure the prizes are awarded on time, with public congratulations and with encouragement for next time to those who didn’t win,” she said.
While essential to an agency’s bottom line, sales revenues are not the only way agencies can determine that their investment has paid off.
“Agents are successful not just when they’re making lots of money, but also when they’re contributing to a healthy team environment,” said Haile. “They do well for the agency by teaching others what they’ve learned, providing positive feedback to other agents and coming up with new and creative ways to make the business more efficient and productive.”