Recruiting Strategies

Amy Reid was a saleswoman for a successful clothing business, making a comfortable salary with bonuses when she, at the age of 27, decided to change career paths and become a travel agent at Martin's Travel & Tours in Los Angeles.

The Long Beach, California resident says the risky transition into a business that can be hit or miss was based on her love of travel and her ability to sell products using an engaging personality as the core of her customer service qualities.

"I was a little bit scared in making the move, coming from a salary-based business with bonuses to one that relies heavily on commission, but I love to travel myself and thought it would be a great challenge to get into something new and different," she says.

Agents, the Amy Reids of the world—young sales professionals with secure jobs who are willing to get involved in an industry that has taken a hit since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that frightened some people away from travel—don't come along too often.

So, don't rely on them to fall on your lap.

Talking to students about the industry is a great first step when recruiting

Instead, rely on any recruiting tools you can get your hands on—all forms of advertising, in-house and outside internship programs, knowledge of nearby travel schools, mentoring programs and networking, keeping your eyes and ears open for anyone who might want to join the team.

But, above all, do what you are doing now—sell.

"That's how you recruit," says Caroline Applequist, director of human resources for AAA's Washington, D.C. office. "You have to sell it to them. But you are not selling destinations, you have to sell the travel industry, the idea of being a travel agent—the opportunity to travel around the world."

Here's what some agencies, large and small, are doing to get the next generation of travel agents.

Hopefully, it will create a welcome task for agents looking to beef up staff: reading a full stack of resumes.

Your Next Agent Could Be Sitting Across From You

First, let's start with Reid. How did Susan Tanzman, owner of the nearly 10-agent company, land someone like Reid?

When selling travel to clients, Tanzman urged her agents to also ask if they knew anyone who was interested in getting involved with the other side of the business. Fortunately for Tanzman, Reid, one of her best clients, was.

"Some of our best agents were recruited through discussions with clients," she says. "Besides Amy, we have two retired firemen on staff who can sell."

A knowledge of the travel industry should take the backseat to experience in selling when an agency is looking for a good agent, Tanzman says.

Kari Thomas, this year's winner of the American Society of Travel Agents' (ASTA) Travel Agent of the Year award, agrees.

"Most agents don't want to look at themselves as salespeople. They don't want to admit it, but that's exactly what we are," Thomas says. "If you have a client who has experience in sales, you should definitely try to encourage them to get into the business."

Go Out in the World...to Get Others to Sell it for You

When recruiting doesn't work in-house, venture out into the community, local high schools or colleges that teach travel courses or offer internships.

High school students at the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism

"I've gone into high schools, junior high schools, colleges, career fairs and spoken about the industry," Thomas says. "You'd be surprised how excited some of these kids can be about the industry, about learning more."

If you have a chapter of the Academy of Travel & Tourism in your state, contact its official to find out what you can do to get involved—these are nests filled with youth looking to become active in the travel industry. Most offer internship program and allow agents to come and speak about the profession.

Regina Flannery, director of the NYC Academy of Finance/Academy of Hospitality & Tourism, says most graduates of the academy, which is comprised of high school students, get involved in the industry in some way, whether it's in marketing, hospitality or the travel agent business.

"This is a pipeline to the industry," she says. "These can be the agents of the future."

Students who already show a talent for the industry, like those at the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism, may make great agents

In her years involved with the academy, she's learned that many young people are turned off to the industry because they feel the Internet is replacing the need for travel agents. Flannery says this isn't true and encourages agents to pass the message along to anyone who feels that way.

"There is such a thing as too much information, and that's what's happened with the Internet," she says.

"There's this information overload that makes people crave that personal attention. Agents have to get out there, visit schools and tell them the Internet is actually helping the business for that reason."

AAA is in the preliminary stages of establishing a formal internship program with the State University of New York/Delhi Campus in New York's Catskill Mountains.

SUNY Delhi has a two-year associate's degree program in travel, offering an opportunity for students to earn their bachelor's degree in tourism.

With more than 300 students enrolled in the program and a required internship as part of the curriculum, it could be a win-win situation for AAA's New York branch and the university.

So, how did AAA find out about this?

By picking up the phone.

"There are so many colleges out there that offer internship programs, you just have to find them," says Applequist. "We're hoping this program will get kids in here, let them see how we operate, let them see what it's like to sell travel, and eventually encourage them to become travel agents."

Organizations Doing Their Part

Virtuoso's Strategy of Growth program features a strong emphasis on recruiting. The program, which was launched in April and is geared toward building on the company's momentum, stresses recruitment as its main objective.

Based on feedback from its member agencies, combined with explosive growth and the demand for unique life experiences, inspired Virtuoso to step up its recruiting efforts, says Mark Belles, executive vice president of sales and service.

Its efforts include ads running in Travel Agent, Home-Based Travel Agent, Luxury Travel Advisor and Travel Professional magazines; e-marketing campaigns, strong presence at industry trade shows, capturing interested travel counselor prospects through an inquiry site, www.virtuoso.com, and providing existing members with a local agent recruiting kit, intended to leverage the network campaign, Belles says.

"The challenge is getting good salespeople and giving them the training and tools they need to become successful in this industry," Belles says.

"We recognize that compensation is an issue, but we've developed a career path for agents (including sales and product training, accreditation, educational trips and the development of specialties) to ensure they are knowledgeable.

"They move through this agent continuum as their skills increase. Their increased skill set, combined with our unparalleled product portfolio, best-in-class marketing and industry leading services, increases their ability to earn in the role and enjoy a compensation level that's comparable to sales positions in other industries," says Belle.

Signature Travel Network has created a series of "Webinars"—online seminars designed to train new agents on how to use all the tools that Signature has available today.

Ignacio Maza

"(Recruiting) is a major concern of our network," says Ignacio Maza, vice president. "Many of our member agencies currently have a number of immediate openings that they are having trouble staffing. We think this is not just a Signature problem, but an industry-wide concern."

So what are Signature members doing to correct the problem?

"Every member is pursuing a different strategy, depending on the particular situation, financials, sales volume, pent up demand, et cetera, of the specific agency," Maza says. "In general, there are a number of trends. Agency managers are considering and hiring candidates who do not have a travel background. Many managers are hiring for attitude, sales skills, and a willingness to learn—then training them in the travel field they will be working in (corporate travel, leisure, cruises, etc.)."

Maza also notes that a number of managers are hiring retired/furloughed flight attendants, then training them how to be a travel consultant.

Flight attendants bring experience in customer service and are usually people who are well traveled—two strong qualifications in their favor, Maza says.

ASTA has a Young Professionals Society that is made of mostly agents under the age of 40 who are constantly spreading the word of the programs' success and recruiting new members, says Senior Vice President Paul Ruden.

"Agents need to quit putting down their own profession by telling people their job is simply selling vacations," he says. "They have to spread the word that travel is so important, has such a global importance as far as exchanging cultural information goes. If young people can see that with their own eyes, recruiting would be easier."

Joanie Ogg, president of the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (NACTA)

Joanie Ogg, president of the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (NACTA) says her company is looking into a mentoring program in which veteran agents work with people who have an interest in the business.

"If you have someone who already has the passion for travel, then you are in good shape. And if you really want them to get into the industry, they should see firsthand what it takes, and perhaps they will choose it as a career," Ogg says.

"The concept of a travel agent is someone who makes dreams come true," she adds.

"It shouldn't be hard to get someone to take a job like that. If you try hard enough, you'll find them."