Travel Agency Experts Offer Tips & Advice for Generational Management

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Baby Boomers often work 60 or even more hours a week, propelling themselves constantly forward, like a military machine and having no plans to retire anytime soon. In a travel agency setting, those experienced agents born between 1946 and 1964 sometimes perceive the office’s younger travel agents as “slack-offs” without a strong work ethic.

Boomers are optimistic and idealistic, but struggle with work-life balance. In contrast, Millennials, also called Generation Y, often the children of Boomers, were born between 1978 and 1987, see success as achieving a good work-life balance and can't live without their technology. They want to work, but on their own terms.

Between those two groups are Generation X employees, born between 1965 and 1977. Very independent and goal oriented, they're the next generation of travel agency leaders. They often say they don't understand either Boomers or Millennials. They're also criticized by Boomers as slackers, because they are unwilling at times to conform to organizational demands. 

Added to the mix, some travel agencies also employ more mature employees born before 1946 and working to keep active, perhaps in a second, post-retirement career. They're often described as the Silent Generation, simply because they were brought up in an era when it was considered professional to be seen and not heard. They're typically slow to embrace change and prefer the status quo.

Travel agencies may have four generations of employees or a mix of employees/independent contractors working together. With sizable differences in their generational mindsets about what work success means, it could be a recipe for chaos. But it doesn’t have to be, say experts who’ve “been there, done that” and have harnessed the power of multi-generational action.

Workplace Dynamics

America's workforce is aging, with five million workers 54 and older and 2.7 million between ages 65 and 69, according to Lee Hecht Harrison, the flagship brand of Adecco Human Capital Solutions; it assists companies to adapt and thrive within a multi-generational environment.

While boomers still comprise 41 percent of the American workforce, Gen X and Gen Y are gaining. Collectively, those two groups represent 50.5 percent of American workers. 

Daren Autry, leisure division operation manager, Montrose Travel

Experts say having a diverse group within a travel agency office, or even within a travel company’s employee mix (perhaps staffers, hosted agents and franchise agents), is a good thing.

“A multi-generational office is absolutely better than an office where everyone is of the same generation,” believes Daren Autry, leisure division operation manager, Montrose Travel, an Ensemble agency in Montrose, CA, himself a Millennial who manages a staff of travel professionals in different age groups: “I’ve learned that everyone has something to offer.”

Similarly, “we value all kinds of diversity and have a strong multi-generational workforce both at our home office and within our franchise network,” says Vicky Garcia, co-owner and chief operating officer, Cruise Planners, an American Express representative, Coral Springs, FL.

What Works, What Doesn’t?

How should owners and managers avoid issues between the generations or tackle a lack of commitment or understanding to company goals and objectives based on generational hot buttons? Autry emphatically says: “Learn what motivates them.”

So research, read and learn. "Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing," and "The Generational Imperative: Understanding Generational Differences in the Workplace, Marketplace, and Living Room," are among many books on the subject. 

It's important because even employees with the same job role -- such as in travel sales – aren’t necessarily motivated to perform in the same way. “For the Baby Boomers, their personal travel experience and the wealth of knowledge they have accumulated over the years are two very important things,” Autry emphasizes. He says Boomers have spent decades honing their craft and they absolutely want to be recognized for their efforts.

“We have seen that an effective way to motivate Baby Boomers is to incentivize them by promoting their specialties,” Autry notes. That could be as simple as talking about them in an agency’s e-mail blast or direct mail piece. The agency might use a photo and short blurb about the new hot destination and why the advisor is qualified to plan it to perfection.

“Not only does that strategy allow consumers to put a name to an expert’s face, it creates friendly competition in the office for others to try harder so that they too can be the next agent to get promoted,” Autry says. Plus, consumers have confidence in working with the highlighted agent.

In contrast, “Gen X and Millennial employees tend to be motivated by opportunity,” he explains. While some are well-versed in travel, they generally hold less experience than Baby Boomers. “They seek the chance to advance to the next level, so creating a structure where junior agents can become senior agents is key,” Autry says. 

Managing Millennials (often called Generation Y) can sometimes be challenging for Baby Boomer managers or even Generation X managers, since Generation Y workers don't hesitate to challenge the status quo, according to Lee Hecht Harrison. A big plus is espousing a "we're all in this together" attitude and appreciating the Millennial's sense of self and individualism within that. 

Another hint about Millennial gratification? “A big motivator for Millennials has been awarding them with opportunities to see the world as they arise in exchange for excellent performance in the office,” Autry stresses. That also helps with retention as Millennials bore easily and will move on if it’s not working for them.

Communications Is Key

While appealing to the generations in different ways is critical, often a manager or owner’s best defense against inter-office conflicts between employees of different generations is as with other facets of life –  about fostering and building great communications.

Tips? Have frequent, more succinct communications with employees and independent contractors (when legally appropriate). Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Know exactly what method of communication they prefer. And deliver your messaging in multiple ways.

Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. // Photo courtesy of CruiseOne

“It’s important to deliver content across all channels,” says Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., two of World Travel Holdings' travel agency brands that have 900 travel agents and 75 corporate employees who support them.

“Millennials might never read the e-mail but might read the text message,” Daly emphasizes, adding that Twitter and Pinterest may appeal to many Millennials while Facebook-type communication tends to span multiple age groups. “We definitely try to multi-prong communications to reach our major objectives in business.”

Sources also say it’s imperative to do the following:

-Create a robust communications plan, tailoring specific and different components based on what’s most appropriate (as well as legally appropriate) for different generations of agency employees, corporate employees, franchise owners, hosted agents and independent contractors

-Know how each person prefers to receive information – and be sure to engage the individual that way.

-Understand that technology channels are very important, but don’t rely solely on them.

-Be sure to have solid one-on-one relationships with the people on your team – regardless of make-up (inside-outside, hosted or franchise, agency or HQ).

-Glean what makes the members of your business team tick – both as individuals and as members of a particular generation

-Understand that generational lines can blur a bit depending on the individual’s geography and life experiences.

-Set up regular communications, such as phone calls or other methods of discussing business operations or employee concerns.

-Just ask yourself if a meeting or conference call is really needed, or would another methodology be more effective?

-Keep discussions short and succinct. Millennials and even Generation X-ers, accustomed to fast technology, simply will tune out if a meeting is too long or a phone call too rambling and vague in direction.

-Communicate goals and objectives clearly. Set milestones for advancement opportunities. 

-Tap into the power of telecommuting, flexible schedules, sabbaticals and education to appeal to different generations; make sure your people feel valued. That will help in retaining good workers. 

-And keep doing the following…  

Stay Authentic, Be Transparent

Most importantly, “be authentic and be transparent,” stresses Wendy Burk, CEO, Cadence Travel in La Jolla, CA. Provide a platform for employee feedback, when it’s received, then listen and act. That’s an expectation all generations have. 

Cadence Travel is a multi-generational company, both with its employees and its independent affiliates.

“We are a multi-generational company, both with our employees and our independent affiliates,” says Burk. “In reality, they are all different and have varying views on life and work. However, the one common thread is their need to work for a company that is authentic.”

Burk says employees will hold a company to task, making sure it’s walking the talk. “Your people need to know where you stand and they need to trust you in order to follow you [regardless of generation],” Burk notes, stressing trust is earned through action.

So “if you say people development is important to your organization, than you better be developing your people through training and educational opportunities,” Burks notes.

Keep Employees Challenged

“It's imperative that you keep your Baby Boomers informed and challenged,” Burk says, adding that they’re smart and eager to learn the latest and greatest in technology enhancements.

“As it relates to your [younger generations], I think you have to take time to get to know them, understand their frame of reference on life and provide the leadership and opportunities that resonate with them,” she adds.

Multi-dimensional training puts everyone on the same page, even though the methods are different. “Adult learning is still adult learning,” stresses Daly. He says all generations respond to visual imagery, although some like to listen, some like to see.

Vicky Garcia, co-owner and chief operating officer, Cruise Planners

So give your staff and affiliates choices, such as interactive in-person training, Web training available 24-7 and one-on-one role playing. It’s getting everyone to understand and see the mission – just in a bit different way.

Garcia adds that Cruise Planners’ in-house technology department builds technology tools that appeal to all generations – from Boomers to Millennials – and also provides customized on-going training based on the individual’s specific learning style.

Motivate and Build a Team

In addition, “no matter the generation, like everyone, they need recognition and acknowledgement,” says Burk. “Both are age-old motivators that inspire people regardless of their age and position in life.” Team building can help employees of varying ages and generations come together and feel they’re part of something good.

Daly says his CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. headquarters staffers – representing different departments -- enjoy coming together for scavenger hunts or other motivational or charitable activities. They’re of different ages and backgrounds but find common ground in a cause.

Still, Burk acknowledges that “team building activities can be a slippery slope with the Millennial crowd.” She stresses that organizations and individual agencies have to be careful not to come across as corny or insincere.

What works? Cadence recently launched a team building activity where people made tutu skirts and super-hero capes to take to Rady’s Children Hospital. “Everyone had so much fun, that we created a second round or items, sold them, and raised $5,000 for the hospital,” she notes. “That was real team building.”

At the home office for Cruise Planners, the team has hosted regular events full of ‘Cruisitude,’ team-building activities and even put our own spin on traditional holiday gatherings,” says Vicky Garcia. “This year, our holiday party included a team-building cooking challenge, which is one example of how we encourage generational and cross-departmental connections.”

Identify Issues, Make Adjustments

One issue several experts cited with Millennials was a lack of patience. “They live in a world where everything is immediate and they look for the same in their career,” Burk stresses. So outline specific career and experience milestones for them to provide realistic time frames and expectations involving advancement.

What do you do if a serious problem develops between workers of differing generations? Personal conflicts that spill into the office or throughout an organization can be toxic. Open, face-to-face communications is a good idea when issues develop between co-workers. “We discourage problem solving through e-mail,” Burk stresses.

Find a private setting – not in the midst of the agency’s public space so the people feel comfortable but “make people sit in the same room and speak with each other face to face,” she says, noting “it makes a tremendous difference.”

Burk adds that it's also crucial to pay for performance, regardless of generation: “If your company is doing well, your people should benefit. It is part of the engagement equation.” If they’re not being paid well, then they’re not likely happy to begin with, and that can simply make other factors within an office – such as the generational dynamics – more contentious.

Serving Diverse Customers

It's not just different generations of employees that owners and managers must manage. Customers also span multiple generations. During Cruise Planners’ training and development for franchise owners, “they’re taught and encouraged to recruit additional travel advisors who offer different perspectives,” says Garcia, noting that the diversity, in turn, helps in selling cruises and other vacations.  

Autry moved into management at 21 years of age. "I didn’t have very much personal travel experience, but I had invested years in an administrative capacity learning the business from the ground up, analyzing past and present industry trends, and learning from our senior staff in an effort to be more well-rounded as a travel professional,” he says.

While he expected to be met with resistance from the agency’s other employees, some two or three times his age, instead, “I was able to earn their respect because I respected what they have to offer and they respected me for my skillset.” Diverse age groups deliver value-added expertise and ingenuity to any organization, Autry believes: “We would not be as effective if everyone was of the same generation.

Daly points out that often an 18-year old or even a younger family member is involved in the decision to book a vacation, so it's important that agency employees "can connect with every decision maker.” Cadence's Burk notes: “It is so important to lead toward engagement. We believe that engaged employees -- of all ages -- create a better product, which means happy customers and better profits. Everybody wins."

What's ahead?

Bruce Mayhew Consulting has an online article that offers good generational characteristics. This written document also gives just a bit of insight about the upcoming Generation Z -- those up-and-coming workers born during or after the mid-1990s.

The consulting firm says online: "So far relatively little is firmly established about the character and motivators of Generation Z-ers, but as children of X-ers who have grown up in the shadows of 9-11 and the war on Iraq, as well as access to information through the Internet, cell phones, iPod's, YouTube and Facebook pages, they will likely be even more ambitious and more 'worldly' than any other new generation." 

In other words, owners and managers should fasten their seatbelts -- and beef up their generational management skills now, as the next generation is on the way.