(Virtual) Help Wanted

In any business, there are peaks and valleys. For travel agents working at home, Wave Season is one of the busiest times of year; others include the holidays, late spring/early summer or the dead of winter when folks are looking for an escape or a spring break vacation. Or how about crisis mode, when volcanic ash clouds strand your clients everywhere from Dusseldorf to Dublin? Then there’s tax season, which can often be a clerical nightmare for independent agents.

When the crunch occurs, you might start feeling like this idea of running a travel agency on your own might not have been one of your better ones. Don’t be too hard on yourself— there are times when everyone feels buried. While large corporations and even many small businesses have the resources to find support for overburdened workers, you probably think you can’t. Enter the virtual assistant.

Virtual assistants are independent contractors who work from their own home or office. They can do everything from answering the phone and responding to e-mail, to shipping, collections, research, marketing, and, yes, travel planning. They can even help with your web site maintenance or social networks.

According to the International Virtual Assistants Association  (see, I’m not making this whole thing up— there's an association and everything!), "A Virtual Assistant (VA) is an independent entrepreneur providing administrative, creative and/or technical services. Utilizing advanced technological modes of communication and data delivery, a professional VA assists clients in his/her area of expertise from his/her own office on a contractual basis."

As with any independent contractor, you pay only for the time you use. And VAs are relatively affordable – typically less than $50 an hour. That may sound like a lot, but the reality is having somebody man the phones for half a day during an airline strike or two days organizing your filing system will save you in time and help improve your relationships with clients. The bottom line is that by hiring a virtual assistant you get the advantages of an assistant without the associated overhead.

So what’s the difference between a virtual assistant and a “temp”? According to VirtualAssistantBusiness.com (see, I’m not making this whole thing up), there are some significant factors that make virtual assistants a better, safer bet.

1. Temporary employees are just that, temporary. They're here today and may be gone tomorrow. A VA, on the other hand, is available on an ongoing basis or can be called upon, at short notice, when an extra pair of administrative hands is required.
2. VAs take a vested interest in the success of their clients and their businesses. VAs believe that the absolute best job possible will not only help their own reputation but will also help to build the client's business. The more successful the client is, the higher possibility of more work needing to be done by the VA or more referrals. A temp, however, may look at the assignment as just a means of padding their resume or getting a paycheque.
3. Training and experience. VAs generally have had many years of experience out in the workforce. VAs also tend to be more apt to upgrade their skills in order to provide their clients with the most up-to-date and professional services that they can possibly provide. Temps, on the other hand, may be those that are right out of school with little or no 'on the job' experience, or those who are simply looking for something to fill their time. Not to mention, when a temp is hired, they have to be trained.
4. A VA is usually an entrepreneur and works with and for the client. As a fellow small-business owner, a VA has a vested interest in the success of their client's business.
 5.  Small-business owners and sole-owner home offices are most likely to need and utilize the services of a VA as opposed to bringing in a temp. The projects are usually varied and may be far between or not enough to keep an employee busy in-house. The completion of the project may also be hampered by the lack of space and equipment that would be necessary if a temp were brought in. It is unlikely they will ever use the services of a temp and they are more receptive to the idea of contracting a secretarial service.

Ever seen the movie Multiplicity in which Michael Keaton, torn between his busy professional life and a harried personal one, manages to create a set of clones to help him out? For busy independent travel agents, your clone just might be a virtual assistant.

Visit www.ivaa.org. Call 888-259-2487 or find the International Virtual Assistants Association page on Facebook.

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