"IT'S GETTING HARDER AND HARDER FOR AGENCIES TO RECRUIT younger people into the travel industry, and attracting new people may be one of our toughest problems," states Lauraday Kelley, vice president of education and training for Vacation.com.
Kelley and other industry leaders see recruitment shortfalls reaching a crisis point, with few quick and easy solutions to the problem. "Agencies will have to pay more, motivate more, train more and communicate more if they are to get across the very real advantages of a travel career," Kelley tells Travel Agent.
With 5,100 agency members, Vacation.com offers an array of education and training programs that can support recruitment. But the task of identifying and screening prospective employees and outside agents remains.
Although there is no precise industry-wide data on recruitment needs of agencies, anecdotal evidence and the testimony of industry leaders suggest they are substantial. Success or failure in the business is increasingly dependent on independent contractors.
Compounding the problem is the diversity in agency needs. An agency might be looking for full-time salaried staff, part-time staff or independent contractors who'd work on a full- or part-time basis. Agencies are also seeking a variety of skills, especially among sales and customer service staff.
Travel sales growth, notably of cruises and escorted cruise and tour groups, has exacerbated staffing problems, as has specialization by agencies. The high cost of agent turnover is a factor, along with the competitive demand for world-class client services.
Speakers at a recent Pacific Asia Travel Association conference underscored what professional agents know: Recruitment is daunting for the entire travel industry. It's not just agents who face the challenges but airlines, hoteliers, call centers, tour operators and cruise lines.
In all sectors, the challenge is how to recruit, train, motivate, incentivize and sustain quality personnel who can deliver services and act with high integrity, according to Andi McClure-Mysza, president of MTravel, the home-based subsidiary of Montrose Travel.
Like many successful agencies, Montrose Travel (which has 150 employees and estimated sales in excess of $100 million) needs to recruit all types of agents—the full-time staffer and the full- or part-time independent agent. This includes corporate and leisure agents.
"The simple truth is that we have to be competitive as agencies, not just against other agencies but against all types of firms in all sectors of the economy. A career in travel has to be made attractive—including financial rewards," Mysza says.
As president of the 26-member Professional Association of Travel Hosts (PATH), Mysza has gained another perspective on the issue. She believes that all PATH member agencies have recruitment problems to some extent. "Host agencies' growth and profitability are largely dependent on quality personnel—whether part-time or full-time, staff or ICs," she says.
Few agencies can afford professional recruiters. The responsibility falls to agency owners and managers, often haphazardly. Mysza recommends planning recruitment efforts, anticipating staffing needs and relating staffing to marketing, sales and technology needs. Agencies must go beyond local advertising to reach prospects, especially experienced agents.
Brad Anderson, co-president of America's Vacation Center/American Express, views recruitment issues to be at the heart of agency survival and growth, and at the core of travel agencies' ability to deliver outstanding service to their clients.
"It isn't just traditional recruiting but the entire human resources program of the agency. We work hard to reward our agents—and our 100-plus support team. This includes the opportunity for career growth, a future. We want highly motivated self-starters who want to be rewarded and build viable businesses of their own," Anderson says.
AVC's program is extensive. The affiliated (home-based) agent receives total support, including sales leads, marketing, easy-to-learn technology for booking and a competitive benefits package.
"All agencies face changes in the demographics of their customer base," says Anderson. "It's the same for recruiting. True, we need more young agents, but also older agents and in-between agents, including part-timers. The common characteristic is the ability and willingness to learn and strong motivation."
The Formula to Compete
Anderson, Mysza and Kelley all emphasize the importance of providing outstanding service to customers if agencies are to compete. This means hiring outstanding people. Whether part or full time, staff is the delivery system on which a successful agency depends.
"Technology is also changing the equation," Anderson says. "We have developed [a] propriety software system not just for management, accounting or booking purposes, but because it empowers our people. And it makes delivery of services to clients better and faster and more accurate. The new breed of agent is using technology, from laptops to cell phones, to do business."
Individual agencies face other dimensions of the recruitment problem, including matching personnel to clients. How can an agency find someone who can meet the demands of high-end clientele, for example? Destination and niche-market training are of greater importance as agents and agencies specialize.
"We find that word-of-mouth recommendations of our agency is our best ally," says Wilma Boyd, president and CEO of Preferred Travel in Naples, FL. "Our reputation and our involvement in the community are important recruiting tools. Community involvement, including civic groups and schools, can help." So can a good website.
Boyd's agency, one of only 16 American Express Representative agencies to handle AmEx Centurion cardholders, urges agents to take the recruitment issue seriously. She has 35 domestic and international specialists focused on the luxury market. "The bottom line is that staff and ICs, any frontline agents, can make or break an agency's reputation," she says.
Boyd, like AVC's Anderson, believes agency owners and managers must get directly involved in motivating and recognizing outstanding achievement. "Every agency has a distinctive culture, and it's up to the management to recognize outstanding performance," she says.
While the challenges of effective recruitment are formidable, agents have some resources to help them. Kelley notes that Vacation.com and other consortia offer extensive networking and training programs, including ones on how to recruit staff and ICs. Vacation.com's June 16-19 conference at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, for example, will feature more than 155 professional training sessions.
Cheryl Hudak, ASTA's president and CEO, is taking an active interest in the recruitment issue and notes that ASTA has a range of offline and online resources to help agents cope with recruitment problems. Visit www.asta.org for more information.
The Travel Institute (www.thetravelinstitute.com) is another source. It offers destination and niche-market training for educators, organizations and individuals.
Many agency groups, from the American Express Representative Network to Carlson Wagonlit Travel, assist members with recruitment and retention. They do so via exchanges between owners and managers on the effectiveness of local recruiting methods and online tools targeting agents. OSSN, CLIA and NACTA also provide resources.
Let the last word go to the editors of Monster.com, the global recruiting website. In the new book Finding Keepers: The Monster Guide to Hiring and Holding the World's Best Employees, they state: "The new relationship among employers, employees, and candidates will determine whether organizations succeed or fail in the coming decades."