Travel agencies face many systemic threats in terms of continuing to grow their businesses. The empowering of travelers with online booking sites, and the slew of destination information available online through sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, have led agencies to think more strongly about how to stay relevant to their clients.
For the last few years, travel agencies and consortia have been looking at ways to both bring younger workers into the business and ensure that older agents have the marketing ability to remain relevant in an increasingly crowded digital marketplace.
“The way I would start is to think about where the travel customers are going, and if that is changing we need to adapt to that,” said Tanuj Suri, vice president of global partnerships at American Express Travel. “Customers today are behaving differently and traveling to different places than they were a few years ago. Accessing information is easy, so what is it from an experience perspective that an agent is bringing?”
Research indicates more travelers are using agents than a few years ago. MMGY Global’s latest Portrait of the American Traveler survey showed that 19 percent of travelers used an agent in 2016, up from 13 percent in 2013. This increase has happened at the same time as a widespread move away from traditional storefront agencies towards agents working as independent contractors, usually joining up with a bigger consortia for training, marketing tools, and access to better travel content.
There are also some demographic trends that are working against agencies. Most notably, it seems that older agency owners want to sell their businesses before another downturn, instead of investing in a younger workforce with an eye on the future.
For bigger agencies and consortia, part of the challenge is simply paying attention to how the landscape of consumer travel booking has shifted– and will continue to shift.
“If you think about the role of the travel agent, it’s certainly not becoming easy and we need to stay ahead of those changes,” said Suri. “It’s not just about recruiting someone who knows [these technology trends], we have some agents who have been around for 20 years but they are adapting very well. I think it’s much broader than finding travel agents of the future; it’s that the business of travel agents is evolving, and that’s the cool part of the job.”
Suri says the new back-end technology being developed by agencies is great for younger agents, who won’t have to learn the arcane intricacies of global distribution systems. American Express Travel is testing an app, for instance, geared towards its customers that is powered by a combination of automated bots and agents, funneling more intricate requests to agents to follow up down the line.
Another reality seems to be clear. It’s not enough to hope that a surge of younger agents pop up, ready to replace the agents set to age out of the agency community; existing agents, and older workers looking for a second career, need to be better educated about the future of travel agencies. How do you get people excited to be a travel agent?
Agency consortia have invested in digital education tools to reach agents who are increasingly spread across the country. Host agencies, which work directly with home-based agents, have also focused on better educating their workers. Travel Leaders Group, the biggest leisure travel agency in the U.S., launched an educational program a few years ago to reach agents both inside and outside its network.
“It came out of the problem of getting younger talent into the travel industry,” said Heather Kindred, program director of Travel Leaders Group’s Travel Leaders of Tomorrow educational program. “Our leadership was sitting around in a meeting in 2012 and they said our talent is getting older, they’re ready to retire in next five to 10 years, and we don’t really have a pipeline of young talent. So we’ll create our own school.”
This industry-wide focus on education is partly in response to the demise of dedicated schools for travel agents, which used to prepare college students for a potential career selling travel. Programs like Travel Leaders Group’s can also be attended by those outside their network, facilitated by a focus on online courses instead of the traditional roadshow-style programs.
“Virtual is almost a requirement in today’s world,” said Kindred. “Even though you might be in your home or a hotel, or maybe even in your office after hours, you still need to be engaged… what that does for the younger learner and the rest is provide some accountability.”
Tour operators also play a role in making sure the agents selling their products know what they’re doing. This has become especially important as agents have moved away from being generalists and towards specialization.
“This has been a really hot topic at all the advisory boards I’ve participated in, every consortia I’ve talked to has been looking to recruit younger agents,” said Melissa Da Silva, president of Contiki, a tour operator geared primarily toward millennials. “They want that fresh perspective. When we do go visit [agency storefronts], it is interesting that there is an assumption that younger agents will sell our product. I’ll also tell you that our best salespeople aren’t in the demographic of our customers; you don’t have to be a millennial to sell effectively to millennials.”