Keeping customers at the center of any career path is an important action plan that someone can have who’s forging a career in travel.

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Education is imperative for learning case studies, fundamental concepts, and building solid professional networks, but having practical and fulfilling experiences working with customers and cultivating a community often transcends classroom lessons.

The Travel Alumni Spotlight is the latest installment of our State of Travel Education series, focused on showing how universities are preparing the industry’s future talent to be thought leaders and innovators.

This spotlight highlights individual stories to offer lessons for how different people reached their current positions. It will also show the many directions professionals entered the industry to evidence how success can be achieved along multiple paths.

Professionals from the digital, aviation, hospitality, and tourism sectors of travel will appear in this spotlight. Here are this week’s three stories.

Mike Gallagher: Co-Founder of CityPASS
School: Mesa Junior College
Studied: Oceanography

“I don’t want to discourage people from going to a university and getting a degree, but it just wasn’t my path. I didn’t end up graduating, and school is really where I honed my social skills. What I wanted to be was an oceanographer. I knew I wanted to work at SeaWorld. SeaWorld allowed me to work and go to school full-time, on top of working there.”

“I was then offered a full time job as a sales person and marketing representative. I didn’t realize I was a salesman. I had a boss at SeaWorld who mentored me and told me I could sell. My social skills really helped with that and I loved it. If you love what you do and are good at it, you get promoted up the ranks. Eventually I became the sales manager, then director of marketing, then vice president of marketing, then executive vice president of marketing by 28-years-old. But there are lots of people just like me in the tourism business, hundreds of people.”

“I thought the concept of a sales person was someone trying to stick their foot in your door trying to sell a vacuum, but that’s not correct. A sales person is someone who sees a situation and tries to help people get what they want. Learning to sell is so important, nothing happens until someone sells something. You’re selling ideas to your family every day, for example.”

“You have to come up with a strategy to attract locals and tourists. This is all CityPASS is, and I’ve done this for 16 years so far, or about 40,000 hours. All I did was create something that I needed for marketing an attraction. That was my university when you think about it. At some point you think of something like, ‘if I had this, it would make my job a lot easier.’ I didn’t create CityPASS with the intention of it being scalable either.”

“In many cases, losing your job leads you to start your own business. That’s how I started CityPASS. My partner and I put our houses up. We self-funded CityPASS. I was doing something that I knew would help the attractions. I didn’t do a business plan at all. I didn’t get investors, and I didn’t want investors. I wanted to do things my way. We perform a service that the attractions really needed. We’re performance-based, we don’t ask anyone for money. We’ve sold 13 million CityPASS’s so far. And we expand slowly.”

Michael Roy: Social Care Specialist at Alaska Airlines
School: Central Maine College
Degree: Occupational Health and Safety

“I became a restaurant owner before the age of 30. I think it was the restaurant that probably exposed me to customer service. It’s very important to go out and treat every customer like they’re the greatest customer. It was there that I realized that customer service was about being real and honest, and about being sincere. You can be more intimate with your customers in restaurants, there are no walls between you. In my career I went from in-person one-on-one interactions to converting one-on-one interactions into a tweet. You cant treat customers much differently when they feel you’re treating them one-on-one on social media.”

“When you have a conversation with a customer on a phone, you can get their inflection. And once you’ve been communicating via social media for a while you can see it there too, you can pick up on tone, it’s fascinating. If we can adapt to that communication style, we can be really engaged. Our social care team are not corporate spokespersons, we have those. We want to be real people having real conversations.”

“When I first started, I thought grammar was most important, but I realized a tweet needs to sound real and from the heart. A customer can’t feel like they’ve gotten a corporate response. They need to feel like the response was from their neighbor. Customers will forgive you for your mistakes if you can be more human and they can see that. They could be asking about football scores while they’re flying, for example. I think you will see more social care teams in airlines in the future. Everyone who’s in social media right now are innovators and explorers, and everyone’s mapping the way as they go along.”

“Social media can be taught in school, but you have to be willing to be engaged, that’s the big one. I can’t teach the human engagement element. Either you were born with it or developed it. The most important thing is to learn to speak this language.”

“Someone going to school right now looking to get into social media should know airlines generally speaking don’t have good reputations with social media. Alaska Airlines is different in the fact that we know our customers already have an expectation that an airline company will be negative, so we need to be real and quick with our social responses.”

Marilyn Terrell: Chief Researcher at National Geographic Traveler
School: Mount Holyoke College
Degree: English

“At Mount Holyoke, I learned the importance of primary sources and deadlines, which turned out to be essential in my career. Although I had studied French for four years in high school, Mount Holyoke insisted I take more, and that still comes in handy sometimes at work. My literature professors stressed the classics, and I don’t think you can become a decent writer in English if you haven’t read and absorbed Shakespeare.”

“I went from answering letters at TIME magazine in NYC to being a researcher-writer for Time-Life Books in Alexandria, Virginia, where I worked on multi-volume book series on various topics. It was a broad cultural education that fed my curiosity about the world, and it helped me get hired at National Geographic Traveler, where I’m now the chief researcher, responsible for the factual accuracy of the magazine. I also raised five kids, which taught me patience and flexibility, and pushed me to be always hunting for fun places to go.”

“For anyone wanting to break into travel media, I suggest reading the best travel narratives you can find. I love reading the adventures of Freya Stark, Mark Twain, Erik Newby, Dervla Murphy, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, fearless and funny writers who pay enough attention to their surroundings to be able to conjure up places and people on a page, and whose insatiable curiosity compelled them to explore the world.”

Photo Credit: A college student studying for an exam. CollegeDegrees360 / Flickr