Getting Past The Travel Agent Workforce Crunch

By | September 29, 2016

Adoption of online booking technology means corporate agencies can grow without a commensurate increase in headcount. But when new travel agents are needed, especially as the retirement bubble looms, how do they find them and what competencies are they looking for?

For young people considering their careers, travel isn’t as glamorous as it used to be. There are fewer perks. Many can work remotely, and that flexibility helps an employer manage its workforce, but pay is below average. At the same time, agents today need a broader range of skills than their predecessors. And it’s not just agents. TMCs are thinking differently about account management, IT and software development personnel.

For years, agencies relied on referrals from within the industry and recruiting from competitors. Some, big and small, still do. They fill spots because they know someone who knows someone. Others don’t like to do it that way anymore.

“The average age is increasing within TMCs,” said Christian Dahl, BCD Travel senior vice president of talent management and global human resources. “It’s the usual suspects when we recruit. The same people who used to work for us come full circle — Amex, CWT and back to us. We need to break that circle.”

travel agent trainingThe Company Dime spoke with executives at more than a dozen corporate travel management companies. They face a workforce crunch now, or expect to soon. Each has a different approach to the challenge.

Some TMCs look for new agents fresh out of school or from other industries. They want recruits to have business savvy and a service orientation. It’s not just about building relationships, though that’s always helpful. A love for travel is nice to have, but it’s not always a pre-requisite. Same for industry knowledge. To keep pace, incoming agents should multitask in multiple channels and work efficiently. They must learn complex and ever-changing industry pricing and supplier contracts. Transactions not flowing through self-service technology typically are the trickier ones.

“The skill set is changing pretty dramatically,” said Casto Travel president and CEO Marc Casto. “We are asking them to know more — new solutions, new tools.”

Casto said he sees “ample opportunity” to find corporate agents, but needs to “look further afield.” Like Gant Travel and others, Casto is using offshore services.

Hire Ed

In the United States, some TMCs say they have healthy internship programs with local colleges. Others don’t find much interest.

FCM Travel Solutions USA president Billy McDonough said the industry needs to better promote careers. That’s why FCM raises awareness at universities. It draws interns from several, including Northeastern University.

While it’s true that some travel agent schools shut their doors during the past 15 years, there are dedicated collegiate programs today.

Dormant for more than a decade, Travel and Transport’s Travel Academy reopened a few years ago in conjunction with Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College. The agency had closed the program because it became harder to fill seats, but that meant trouble finding good agents as the company hit a growth spurt.

Travel and Transport vice president of human resources Jim Winterscheid said there was a perception issue. Maybe people thought “the Internet killed traditional travel agencies,” he said. “There was probably a lack of understanding from the general public that we were a growing company. We thought it was on us to prepare the next generation of agents.”

Now, Travel and Transport hires about 80 percent of those who earn an associate degree through the program. They are more “well-rounded” candidates, Winterscheid said. That’s because they must meet requirements of the degree rather than only the TMC’s training.

Between MCC grads and interns on one side and retiring personnel on the other, Travel and Transport’s average employee age in the past three years dropped by about two years to 47.5.

Ovation Travel Group in 2014 opened Ovation Academy in partnership with New York’s Monroe College. It includes classroom and online coursework and apprenticeships with veteran agents. Ovation EVP Michael Steiner said there’s “a lot of heavy lifting to get qualified travel consultants,” but it’s an essential task. About 25 students go through each 10-week class. Roughly half end up staying at Ovation long term.

Amadeus in 2014 brought Amadeus Training Services to North America. It partnered with Seneca College’s Tourism and Travel Services in Toronto. Students get trained in Amadeus reservations technology. American Express, Carlson Wagonlit Travel and Vision 2000 Travel Group are among those that have placed grads.

In 2015, Amadeus began a similar program with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. This year it added Miami Dade College. It also works with Canadian Tourism and Hospitality Institute and Atlantic Cape Community College.

Amadeus North America COO Vic Pynn said agents today must be more fully versed in all types of transactions. That includes refunds, exchanges and cancellations brought on by flight disruptions. “It is a lot easier to sell a service for disruption that involves humans rather than only technology,” he said.

At BCD Travel, Dahl said dealing with the talent crunch has been a priority for several years. Existing employees go through training to build up “their confident self,” he explained. The idea is to add competencies as the industry evolves, based on specific roles. The training centers on service excellence, negotiation skills, interpersonal relations and “managerial courage.”

Finding new employees means reaching into other service industries. “Then we’ll train them on the agent specifics,” Dahl said.

Other TMC execs shared that sentiment. McDonough said that while FCM sometimes gets agents from other TMCs, “I personally prefer to take raw talent and train them our way.”

Egencia, too, has changed its recruiting profile. “It’s folks who have worked in customer service-related fields – not necessarily travel,” said senior director of customer service Phoebe Schultz. “In the past it was always travel.”

As such, travel’s ins and outs now are more of a focus in Egencia’s training than in the past. The first pilot of the TMC’s new training program is ongoing.

American Express Global Business Travel wants “problem solvers,” but also those with “deep travel industry experience,” said vice president of talent management Danielle McMahan. She said GBT also likes to develop some new workers. That includes returning veterans and their spouses, and the older crowd looking for more flexible, part-time work as they near retirement.

To address channel shifts and client demand for personalized service, GBT vice president of global service and delivery Stuart McReynolds said the company essentially is “in the process of rehiring our current staff.”

The channel shift, McReynolds said, isn’t just about online versus offline. There are new technologies and other ways to communicate. “Travelers are moving from digital to non-digital as they move throughout their trip,” he said. “The way we organize our talent amid that shift is more important.”

Execs also discussed the need to keep younger workers engaged and incentivized in a dynamic, fun environment. “People entering the workforce now have different needs and wants than workers years ago,” Steiner said. “With that you need a different approach to ongoing training and overall culture.”

AmTrav thinks of its agent development plan like a professional baseball team’s farm system. Using sites like Careerbuilder and Craigslist, it hires recruits to work at sibling company cheapair.com. These people likely have no travel industry experience. They get trained on the company’s self-built, universal agent desktop. “Once they learn the booking tool, that covers a lot,” said president Craig Fichtelberg. “We skim the best off the top and promote them to the AmTrav Corporate Travel team.”

These workers show a propensity to provide a high level of customer support and understand corporate travel policies and cultures. “We have been surprised to see how quickly they can make the jump,” Fichtelberg said. “We discovered a lot of these young people are more savvy than people think in terms of understanding travel.”

The next step is moving to AmTrav’s “all-star team.” That’s where agents serve accounts with VIP, international and other complex needs. Perhaps they move into an account management role.

About Those Green Screens

AmTrav built its platform so agents need not use cryptic GDS languages. Others are starting to move in that direction and training new agents on newer desktop systems like Sabre Red and Travelport Smartpoint. Some haven’t moved that way at all. Most view familiarity with old-school green screens as foundational, and often easier. It appears that at most TMCs, it’ll be the case for at least a while longer.

Casto said his TMC about two weeks ago implemented Sabre Profiles companywide. “It is the first step for training on something that is not cryptic,” he said. “We’ll need more well-rounded people, flexible in both, but we’ll still be in a transition phase for at least another five years.”

At Christopherson Business Travel, there’s preliminary planning underway to train new hires on point-and-click agent tools. “We are taking baby steps towards hiring millennials to use intuitive interfaces,” said CEO Mike Cameron. “It’s not a problem yet. We haven’t had to do it.”

Sharing a common observation, Balboa Travel senior vice president Stephen Thomas-Schulere said agents are “creatures of habit.” Balboa’s agents still use native GDS commands, but those are augmented with newer tech. Internal training helps agents stay current on GDS updates, Thomas-Schulere said, but they also learn how to apply new tools that can improve the reservations process. Ninety-eight percent of Balboa’s agents work virtually.

Some TMCs, of course, built their own agent tools. Egencia’s Shultz acknowledged that “we have been a bit challenged to get folks who have years and years of back-end GDS experience to use our tool.” She said that’s something addressed by the new training program.

BCD’s big focus is on the TripSource app. That means positioning agents to walk travelers through the technology. “There are some interesting developments on multi-channel interaction,” Dahl said. He cited webcams and chats. “That is a different skill set for the agent at the other end than the typical green screen.”

Beyond Agents

New agents aren’t the only kind of employee TMCs need.

Casto said account management “probably is the hardest area to fill.” He said account managers need “all the skills of a frontline agent and the etiquette and personality of a front line sales person. It is a curious blend of personality types as well as knowledge and skill set that is in short supply.”

Amex GBT has been “talking a lot” about the role of the client manager, McMahan said. “Is it someone who is in support of servicing the client or are they on the sales side in terms of helping the client realize more value from our product suite? We are in the midst of that debate, really defining what that profile and future skill set is. That will enable us to analyze our current workforce and who we need to train for that future role and maybe move around some things within the organizational structure.”

Execs from a few TMCs said it’s no longer the case that account managers always come through the agent ranks. Effective ones today must understand economics, clients’ procurement focus and negotiations. They are expected to act as consultants. Some TMC training takes that into account.

“It’s the main reason for our Management Associate Program,” Dahl said. “We bring in people who understand business, studied business and know the dynamics of business negotiations, and more easily transition them into an account management role.”

At Ovation, there’s a growing effort to bring in people from clients’ industries — law, fashion, finance, professional services. Steiner said that’s for account management, business intelligence and business development. “We train them in travel management and they can bring expertise from specific industries that are important to our clients,” he said.

IT and software development are other areas where some TMCs have big needs. It’s a function of how much tech they build themselves and how much they must integrate. A growing number are providing business intelligence, data visualization, portals and apps. All corporate TMCs must have personnel to support online booking tools. All must address data security.

CBT is paying big fees to recruiters to find developers, including user interface/experience specialists. “We don’t get referrals for those folks like we get for agents from people we know in the industry,” Cameron said. “It’s super competitive and very expensive. The complexion of our team definitely has changed to be much more tech-oriented. We are doing more testing with clients, agents and internal support people than we have ever done.”

Egencia also needs those kinds of people to develop its tech. Being in a tech hotbed like Seattle makes that tough. That also goes for Casto and its neighbors in Silicon Valley.

GBT uses “sophisticated strategic workforce planning analytics to understand where are populations of talent,” said McMahan. It found one in Phoenix, where the company opened a new tech center.

“We have a hybrid model in terms of bringing in full-time people and contract labor to help us fill gaps,” she said. While travel is in a war for tech talent like any other sector, “the pace at which we are building may be different. We have had to scale up pretty quickly to play catch up with other industries.”

Additional info: Among other agent training programs, Travel Leaders Group for more than three years has supported Travel Leaders of Tomorrow. It’s a virtual program that expected to educate more than 175 participants this year.

AllStar Travel Group in 2014 created the ATG Business Travel Academy but it’s not currently operating.

The American Society of Travel Agents offers the “Becoming a Travel Agent” online course and handbook, and a list of U.S. travel schools.

Travelport runs the Travelport Academy and has sponsored some local education efforts. Along with several other travel companies, it also participates in the Global Travel & Tourism Partnership, an industry effort to develop careers. A Sabre official said the company partners with agencies on training.

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives’ Around The World “immersion” program is a six-week course sponsored by BCD Travel. It’s for travel pros and, through a fellowship, select university students. Fellowship recipients are expected to accept a short-term employment contract with the program’s sponsor. BCD Travel since 2012 has aligned its Management Associate Program with ACTE. Of 12 people it put through, 10 are still with BCD.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in December estimated that overall travel agency employment between 2014 and 2024 will decline by 12 percent, or 8,700 positions. That compares to 7 percent growth for all occupations. The median annual wage for travel agents in May 2015 was $35,660.

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