Be a winner. Leave a legacy.

By Charlie Funk
Charlie FunkPhoCusWright reports that between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of travel agents age 55 and over rose from 47% to 58%. As a result, 70% of agents working today have been in the business 20 years or longer. Fewer than 11% are under the age of 45, and -- most alarming -- fewer than 2% are under the age of 35.

The number of people entering the business as home-based agents has grown. But in this group, 40% or so have five years or less experience. And while younger, 47% of this group are over 55; only 6% are younger than 35.

It doesn't take a math and science wizard to figure out that, absent substantive action and initiatives, the retail travel sector is indeed at risk. Existing travel agents and suppliers who understand that many aspects of travel, especially vacations, will always be better served by a pool of professional travel retailers have a responsibility to step forward and make a difference.

Last year, in a column titled "On being Patrick," [It's Like This, Aug. 1] I wrote about a program in which my wife, Sherrie, had become involved at her alma mater, Antioch High School. 

Twelve schools in metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County adopted an academy program some two or three years back that included a curriculum track called Hospitality and Tourism. Sherrie got involved and created a student certification program for Antioch students that uses cruise line training programs intended for travel agents. She deployed Royal Caribbean's University of Wow as a pilot curriculum to determine if the idea was feasible and practical.

As it turns out, the course study meets local, state and federal guidelines for inclusion in the standard classroom curriculum.

In another column the following month, titled "Because that's where the money is," [It's Like This, Sept. 26] I updated the program's progress. At the time, we had about 30 students enrolled at Antioch, and we were rolling out the program in the second semester at three more high schools that also offered a Hospitality and Tourism academy track. 

Thus far, about 30 students have passed the Expert Plus-level certification and another 90 or so are enrolled and close to completing the course as well. It is fair to say that this program has been well received. Students work on the program enthusiastically, and many have done so at home.

High school students are veritable sponges for learning things that are of interest. They are still at a stage in life where their primary job is learning. Because they are not burdened by having to work to support themselves or a family, they can study the travel business in the evenings at little or no cost. It is an ideal confluence of opportunity and enthusiasm that is difficult to reproduce in another environment.

So, what does that have to do with you, the travel professional reading this column?

All those agents over age 55 who will soon be retiring are taking with them a wealth of knowledge, an institutional memory that can and should be communicated to a new generation before walking out the door for the last time.

Resolve to get involved in your local schools.

Contact your local school board or community college, and find out if they have a curriculum or course work that involves hospitality and tourism.

If they do, open a dialogue on how they can improve that curriculum with the help of travel professionals and industry training materials that provide in-depth information on all facets of travel.

You can and should make a difference in some young person's life. Leave a legacy. Everyone comes up a winner when you do.

If you find that your local school system or community college would be interested in considering a program to train young people to enter the travel industry, we'd love to help. Contact me at charlie@justcruisinplus.com and put "Travel agent academy curriculum" in the subject line.

Charlie and Sherrie Funk own Just Cruisin' Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and have provided agent and agency-owner training throughout North America on every facet of travel agency operations. They are the authors of several books, including "A Recipe for Travel Agency Success," "Creating a Blueprint for Growing Your Agency" and "You're Invited," a complete guide to hosting consumer travel events. 
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