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It's no secret that it’s a formidable challenge for most travel agents just to keep up with day-to-day workplace demands. Stepping back to take a longer view of changing marketplace dynamics and track key trends that are reshaping business seems like a luxury.
But as the pace of change accelerates, understanding how to position for success in a rapidly evolving environment has become a survival imperative.
Below, five acclaimed experts in business, technology, the economy and the workplace identify key trends that are transforming business and offer travel agents practical lessons on how to anchor themselves for success in a sea of change.
Lesson 1: Continuous ReconfigurationTo firmly position for success despite the constantly shifting sands, travel agencies need to become “anticipatory and strategic,” advised Daniel Burrus, entrepreneur, business consultant and author of six books including Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible.
“With all the types of innovations in mobility and other technologies, the more you are in a protect-and-defend mode, the quicker you are going to be in trouble,” Burrus said.
He believes that many companies are stuck in a reactionary approach to doing business.
“In the past, change came to us quite slowly, at least compared to today, and we could simply react to the changes that were occurring,” Burrus said. “Now changes are happening so fast — and they can put you out of business so fast — that we need to be anticipatory in terms of opportunities and being able to solve future problems.”
The volatile interconnected global economy is also reshaping how all businesses, large and small, function. And if you’re looking forward to the return of the good old days of relatively predictable cycles of prosperity and recession, you’re out of luck, according to John Caslione, international business consultant and co-author of Chaotics: The Business of Managing and Marketing in the Age of Turbulence.
The post-2008 global economy and the immediacy that information technology has brought to every aspect of life have created an “interlocking fragility” that has permanently altered economic patterns, Caslione said.
While economies have always experienced and weathered turbulent times, including world wars, they were episodic, he noted.
“They had a beginning and they had an end. What we have now is a higher amplitude of turbulence, uncertainty and risk because of the interrelationships between global economies,” said Caslione. “The heightened level of economic turbulence and the accompanying risks and uncertainties are not going to subside. They are built in now as a permanent part of the system.”
For travel agents, that means doing business as it’s been done in the past — even in the recent past — will not suffice. Agents who want to prosper will have to learn how to function in an environment where constant change rules the day.
“You’re not going to be able to just slow down and take a breath,” Caslione said. “You need to rethink and rebuild your company, including your team’s thinking and how they’re going to deal in the new environment.”
That means that travel businesses need to get used to operating in an environment where competitive advantage is fleeting rather than fixed, said Rita Gunther McGrath, an expert on business strategy in volatile times, a business professor at Columbia University and the author of The End of Competitive Advantage.
McGrath examined a rare group of 10 companies in different industries that were all able to consistently grow their net income by at least 5 percent per year over a 10-year period. The study’s time frame included 2008 and the rocky economic years immediately following.
“I found a couple of things that are quite different from the way most other companies are organized,” she said. “The first was what I call ‘continuous reconfiguration.’ These consistently high-growth companies were constantly moving in response to the markets and in response to signals of opportunity. You never had this starting and stopping — reorganizing, then having things settle down and go on for quite a while, then reorganizing again. It was a much more continuous change process.”
According to McGrath, smaller companies, like most travel agencies, have had a better intuitive sense of the need for constant reconfiguration.
“If you’re a small company and you run out of money, you die,” she said. “If you’re a big company, it happens a lot more slowly.”
Lesson 2: Making the Most of a Multigenerational WorkforceFinding and keeping talent has been a perennial challenge for travel agencies, but larger demographic trends in the U.S. population are pushing those issues into an entirely new dimension.
This year members of the Millennial generation will comprise half of the U.S. workforce and, by 2020, there will be five generations working together, according to Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace consulting firm, a columnist for Forbes magazine and coauthor of The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today.
This historic shift in the composition of the workplace is partly the result of people living and working longer, as well as a whole new generation called Generation C (for Connected). Now in high school, they will be entering the workforce by 2020.
“This is the first time in history where age differences — having the five generations in the workplace — is a type of diversity that human resource executives have to grapple with,” Meister said.
It would be a mistake to assume that all employees share a common mindset or values. In fact, each generation will have different reasons for working and each will have distinctively different expectations regarding where, when, how and for whom they work.
“Workplace flexibility is more important the younger you are,” Meister said. “I think that’s because Boomers are a pretty obedient generation. I’m a Boomer and we may agree with Millennials that workplace flexibility is important, but it’s not something we’re going to go to the mat for the way Millennials will.”
Millennial workers also tend to hold their employers to a higher standard, according to Meister, who cited research in her book by the Cone Millennial Cause group and Net Impact, two organizations that examine Millennials and corporate social responsibility.
“Well over half of the Millennials that each organization surveyed said they want to work for a company whose values match their own,” Meister said. “The study, which surveyed 1,800 young people from 13 to 25 years old, found that 79 percent want to work for a company that cares about how it impacts and contributes to society. More than half said they would refuse to work for a company they felt was irresponsible in that area.”
The generations also stand in very different camps regarding work-life balance, a hot-button issue that once spawned droves of workshops and self-help books for now-older workers. Traditionalists and Boomers surveyed said work-life balance was indeed important to them, Meister said, “but the Gen-Xers and the Millennials said work-life balance is an outdated term. Work is part of life. Life is part of work. The two are blurring.”
Members of Generation X have their own take on the issue of work-life balance according to Sheryl Connelly, the global head of trends and futuring for Ford Motor Company.
“I’m 46 years old. I’m a Gen-Xer,” she said. “The Baby Boomers are somewhere between 50 and 68. The work ethic of the Baby Boomers is such that it’s all about face time. The person who was first to arrive and last to leave was the one most likely to get noticed and that’s how you got ahead in the workplace.”
Not so for Gen-Xers.
“We were raised during the wake of the women’s liberation movement, and we’re the first generation to come home to empty households. We’re latchkey kids,” she said. “A byproduct of that is as we start our own families, the priority of having work-life balance is paramount to all other things. We’re not prepared to get ahead through face time. We get ahead through response time, and that means we’re answering emails on a Saturday night at three in the morning when we’re supposed to be on vacation on the other side of the world. We demonstrate our commitment not by always being in the office but by always being available online.”
Lesson 3: Give Consumers What They WantConnelly’s job at Ford is to stay on top of the constant surge of new ideas about society, culture, technology, the environment and the economy that are reshaping what consumers want and expect from the companies with which they do business. The most recent results of that endeavor have been compiled in a 2014 report that distills a broad range of research and ideas into 10 global trends focusing on how the technology explosion is shaping consumer choices and behaviors.
One finding in particular bodes well for the hallmark strengths of high-touch, service-oriented travel agencies. According to Connelly, consumers are seeking more intimate connections with retailers and service providers as they hunt for stories of identity and meaning in their products and services.
“The World Wide Web is a wonderful thing, and it gives us so many choices,” Connelly said. “You have these conglomerate retailers and service providers that promise to get you the item or the service that you want to buy at the lowest cost possible. That’s all well and good, but we’re just starting to feel the impact of what happens when you lose the relationship with the people that you’re actually doing business with. It leaves many people wanting for the unique expertise of a consultant, the touch or the history of a mom-and-pop shop, the sense of community when you buy something local.”
Traditionalistsinclude the 46 million people born before 1946
Baby Boomersinclude the 78 million people born between 1946 and 1964
Generation Xincludes the 50 million people born between 1965 and 1976
Millennialsinclude the 88 million people born between 1977 and 1997
Generation 2020 (aka Generation C, for ‘connected’)includes the 41 million people born after 1997