Source: www.Forbesc.com – Full Article Here.
Turn on the news, and the need for quality jobs that pay good wages are at the core of this year’s Presidential campaign. However, one career government data shows as being in decline, is proving pundits and statisticians wrong, say many in the industry.
For the first time in at least three years, travel agent didn’t make Kiplinger’s annual list of “Worst Jobs For the Future.” The negative press shouldn’t be surprising. The idea that entire industries were ripe for disintermediation was a popular early decade theory with DotCom pundits, and travel agents still suffer from lingering reports of their demise.
Even in the industry, at one point, the mood was sour. Matthew Upchurch, the chairman of Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel advisors, recalls an industry survey around 2000 that showed only 15 percent of travel agents said they would recommend their profession to friends and family.
The American Society of Travel Agents, a trade association, says current Labor Bureau statistics miss 40 percent of the agent population, who work as independent contractors instead of full-time employees, thus providing more fodder for uninformed reports.
However, times change. Becoming a travel advisor is considered a hot job today, particularly as a career change. After all, with the proliferation of social media sharing, what’s more glamorous than showing off to your friends and family as you post pictures from five star resorts in exotic locales? Lawyers, accountants, mortgage brokers, pharmaceutical sales reps, real estate agents, journalists, TV reporters and even hotel and airline executives are becoming travel advisors, buying travel agencies, and taking up senior positions with agency groups.
Six years ago Sylvia Betesh Lebovitch traded a $50,000 per year job at New York Presbyterian Hospital as a registered nutritionist to become a travel advisor with Ovation Vacations.
A survey by Virtuoso released last week showed that 36 percent of “top producers” earn over $100,000. Stacy Small, a former journalist and magazine editor who has grown her agency to a team of 20 independent contractors says, top-producing agents can earn between $250,000 and $500,000 per year.
“You really get to make dreams come true. You are helping people plan experiences that they will remember for the rest of their lifetime. In Nutrition, you’re the one telling them, ‘don’t do this eat this,’ or ‘eat more of this,’ and for the most part, it’s stuff they already know and don’t want to hear,” says Betsch Lebovitch. Paula Kaisner, was a telecommunications executive for 15 years before becoming a travel agent. “After college I fell into the tech world, but it didn’t suit my personality. I was good at what I did. I was good with customers. I was good with management. I was good with the team, but I would go home and feel like I wasn’t doing anything that gave me a fire in my belly,” she says.
While building a client base is paramount, agents say in many cases there is more demand than they can personally handle. Betsch Lebovitch says she relies entirely on referrals.
That could be because more consumers are seemingly getting frustrated with booking online. Research shows consumers, particularly Millennials, are turning away from their smartphones and to travel agents in record numbers, and smart agents are using social media to generate bookings from followers. A study of American travelers conducted by MMGY Worldwide shows growth in travel agent demand for four straight years, with the wired generation showing the highest rate of growth.
Experts say consumer demand for travel agents is being driven by a myriad of factors. Complicated pricing and a myriad of arcane rules and regulations make booking travel online a risky proposition, even for relatively easy trips.
The trend towards experiential travel means that booking a vacation is more complicated than searching for the best deal for a bed and airline ticket. Friends and family groups can be difficult to book online, especially if you are the one charged with coordinating the game plan for a myriad of uncles, aunts, cousins, their spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends and their range of demands.
When strikes, weather disruptions and terrorism impacts airline schedules, consumers often find being able to text or call a real person who knows them for help can save hours on hold. At the same time, good agents who often know about disruptions before their customers, are able to reroute clients before they even know their flight was impacted.
On the supplier side, the growth in new hotel and cruise concepts, brands and unbranded lifestyle hotels mean that choosing the right vendor has become more complicated. Review sites like Trip Advisor and Cruise Critic can feature over a thousand reviews on a single property or ship, with the difference between a Good and Poor rating related to what the guest was expecting. Travel advisors say one of their most important functions is to know the products they sell so they can better pair your needs to the right product.
“We’re like a matchmaker,” says Small. “Each trip is its almost like setting your client up on a date, so really knowing the hotel and cruise products, and different styles, to know it’s right them, is critical.”
If there is truth to the old adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” you can check another box for today’s travel agents. In addition to spending as much as half of the year traveling to scout hotels and destinations, many attend a variety of conferences where they network with managers of hotels and executives of suppliers that they sell or want their bookings. The net effect is they gather hundreds of business cards, providing executive contacts that can help with special arrangements for something such as an anniversary or sort out problems when they occur.
With Millennials having a high incidence of both partners working, and business today often meaning your boss is texting or emailing you after hours, there is just less time to do it yourself. What’s more, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, travel is a growth industry, accounting for about nine percent of global employment and over seven trillion dollars in annual revenue.
Another factor making being a travel agent an attractive profession is you no longer have to sit at a desk in an office all day, staring into a computer screen, waiting for clients to walk in. Small, who focuses on luxury travel and counts a number of Hollywood and Silicon Valley elite in her client base, says in some cases she has never met them in person, just dealing with them by phone, text and instant message. A leader in using social media, she travels frequently posting pictures to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Current clients email her back to book the villas and suites she posts and refer friends to follow her, who often end up becoming clients. In fact, like doctors of yesteryear, she makes house calls from time to time to meet with clients.
Kaisner, who is a franchisee for Dream Vacations in Austin Texas, got started after she and her husband, both cruise enthusiasts met another franchisee on a cruise. She says, having a thick skin and realizing not everyone is going to book with you is critical. She adds being out in your community and networking is the key to growing business. She has wrapped her car and her laptop with promotion for her agency. ”I’ve had people come up to me in a coffee shop who’ve become customers. I play in a tennis league, and it’s surprising how much travel I’ve been able to sell to people who I meet,” she says. Kaisner adds she also advertises in community media, which she says gives her an edge, because it makes people more comfortable approaching her to talk about travel.
At the same time, being a travel advisor is not simply visiting luxury resorts and lounging on the beach. Agents say when they travel, their days are long, walking through hotels to see the different room types, taking notes of which ones have the best views as well as ones they put on their “do not sell” lists because of anything from excessive restaurant noise to a “Garden View” which includes a parking garage. Visiting the spa doesn’t mean getting treatments, but instead listening and learning about the offerings and ascertaining who the best therapists are so they can make sure their clients get appointments with the best masseuses. Dinner might be appetizers in one restaurant, main course in a second and desert in a third so they can sample all elements of a resort’s offerings, taking note of the best tables for large family groups, the views from different private rooms as well as the best tables for romance. It’s the type of information that can make or break a vacation, but is hard to find. Then there is networking with the concierge, again, to have a personal relationship when they need to call in a favor for a VIP. After a day or two, it’s usually onto the next hotel to do the same.
In between touring and posting to pictures to social media, advisors are on their smartphones answering client questions and requests and making bookings. Jack Ezon is a former lawyer and day trader helped Ovation Travel, a corporate agency, launch Ovation Vacations in 2005. The division today generates $325 million in sales. He says, “When you go away, you may be in these amazing places (but) a successful advisor is doing two jobs at once: Experiencing the destination, and then working for seven or eight hours servicing customers. You stay up until 2 am working. It’s a professional business. It’s not a vacation.”
Mike Batt is a former senior executive with British Airways, who came from consumer goods. Today he is chairman of Travel Leaders, the largest group of travel agencies in the U.S. He says, “When I first entered the travel agency business some 20 years ago, most of my friends thought I’d lost my mind, and I was warned repeatedly that declining airline commissions and the rise of the Internet would simply eliminate the need for travel agents. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the company I joined in 1996 with $2 billion in travel sales grew to $6 billion by 2007, and following a management buyout in 2008 has now grown to more than $20 billion in sales. Quite an achievement for a business that was supposed to be destined for the dustbin.” Last month Travel Leaders added Gail Grimmett, a senior vice president at Delta Air Lines, who was tapped to build the group’s luxury business for its Protravel and Tzell units.
If you are interested in becoming a travel advisor, two key attributes are a passion for travel and providing a high level of service. The other, experts say, is the ability to take a salary cut for a year or so as you learn and build up your roster of customers.
Betesh Lebovitch says she worked for a year with Ovation as a “concierge,” a sort of apprentice trainee position, meaning she took care of all the details for trips that travel advisors had planned. “It was an amazing way to learn the details.”
The Virtuoso survey reports 38 percent of respondents said, it takes 2-3 years for a new advisor to reach the earnings level of an established advisor, whereas 36 percent said it took 3-5 years. Some 15 percent were able to achieve income parity in under two years.
Of course the draw is a career that provides fulfillment. “I wanted to do something I would be excited about,” says Ezon. “I didn’t mind working 20 hours a day.”
Agents also say it’s important not to underestimate how complicated the industry can be, and although it is possible to be a travel advisor and outsource airline reservations to a ticketing expert, most advisors saying being proficient in booking airline seats is critical in making sure clients get the best fares, preferred seats and are rebooked efficiently when things go wrong.
While having traveled a lot may be helpful in getting started, Ezon says, it’s not a requirement. He says, one of the biggest challenges in the luxury space is getting new advisors to understand that customers aren’t always looking for the cheapest price, and in fact many are willing to pay more to get a particular room or suite, or to have a special, memorable experience. “Some vacations we arrange may cost five times your father’s salary,” he says. Ezon adds, being resourceful is a must, while Small adds the ability to multitask is critical.
Small says that your current career brings valuable experience. She says, accountants and financial planners tend to be very well organized, while journalists and public relations execs are creative, executives from hotels and airlines have insider industry knowledge, while salespeople and real estate agents are outgoing and comfortable networking to build their customer base.
For those that make the switch, they are joining an industry where 55 percent of advisors say their paycheck has grown by at least 10 percent the past five years. According to Virtuoso, 67 percent of agencies are planning to hire new agents in the coming year, and while compensation methods vary, 41 percent say pay is a mix of mainly salary, furthered by commissions. Thirty-five percent pay via salary only while 35 percent are either straight commission, or mainly commission. Of agencies not hiring, 43 percent said it’s due to not finding qualified staff, meaning if you show up with a positive attitude, there’s a good chance you will find an agency willing to give you a chance.
Travel agent is a popular second career with entrepreneurs and corporate types who have the entrepreneurial bug. While earnings may be slow at the start, there aren’t start-up costs such as office space, hiring staff, build outs or renting machinery. It’s easy to affiliate with an existing agency as an independent contractor as you get your feet wet, and some agents like Small then move on to start their own businesses as their revenue stream grows.
The industry has been surprisingly durable. Virtuoso statistics show 42 percent of advisors started in the business over the past 15 years, meaning that despite the many stories about agents being dinosaurs, there was still a very strong draw.
As you’re getting started, agents say there is plentiful industry training, particularly on products and destinations, however Small adds, equally important is being a skilled closer, so people don’t just use you to gain information as part of their do it yourself exercise. If you do want to become a travel advisor, Betesh Lebovitch advises, “Make sure you don’t mind packing and unpacking…a lot.”