There have been two occasions when I've been invited to give a motivational speech to a large gathering of travel industry newbies and potential career-changers envious of our perceived lifestyle. The audiences were a mixture of college and, more likely, high school graduates, and a fair number of retired government workers and part-time real estate agents.
The speeches I gave were guaranteed to enable me to sleep at night because I tried to tell the audience the truth, as I saw it, about the appallingly poor ratio of effort to remuneration in our business.
In fact, my speeches were so good that I was never invited back to speak again. I had turned off many more people than I had turned on.
Hopping up on a stage to entertain a few thousand folks about business or marketing strategies or even about consumer travel advice is no big thing. But telling a room full of eager hopefuls that ours is the industry for them was not something I could do with a clear conscience. Not when the starting salary for a court stenographer hovers around $60,000 a year (they have to know how to transcribe on those little machines).
If the average student aspiring to be a travel agent could be persuaded to go to pharmacy school instead of travel school, she could realize a 400% salary differential in the first year on the job.
I met my wife of 27 years during a presentation in which I tried to persuade the audience that travel agents would soon be placed on the endangered species list, much like the blue-sided tree frog.
It just always seemed to me that travel agents, the brighter ones, could make more money and lead more fulfilling lives doing something else.
In those days, I wasn't a travel agent, and I certainly wasn't a travel consultant. I worked for a supplier and I worked with lots of agents. To my mind, working the cruise, tour and especially the hotel side of the industry provided many more opportunities for personal growth and an income that actually exceeded the poverty level.
Of course, with the passage of time, I modified my views on this subject. My wife paid no attention to me and became a highly engaging agent with celebrity clients. When we launched our agency, she became my boss.
I can now argue the virtue and the wisdom of a career in travel. With the passage of time, I now find myself in the position of steering folks toward a career in travel.
I am thinking about this irony today because I am currently trying to expand our staff, and I am having a hard time finding the right candidate despite the state of our economy and the layoffs associated with our industry. I thought I would share a bit of this with you.
We are looking for a client services manager, someone who will work full time about a month or two during the year and three or four days a week the rest of the time. The position involves research and lots of phone contact with some of the nicest clients on Earth. There is no selling at all. We pay a generous hourly salary and include profit-sharing. We do not write airline tickets. Our staff does not work on commission. There is no weekend or evening work, and staff can pretty much take off when they need to.
In short, our goal is to try to create the perfect scenario for anyone who joins us. Our approach is to work as a team. There are some amazing travel opportunities, and we are willing to hire the right person even if they lack agency experience, as long as they are extremely well-traveled, comfortable dealing with high-net-worth individuals and possess some awesome computer skills. They also have to be at least as funny as Kathy Griffin.
And we just can't find suitable candidates. In fact, it is difficult to even advertise for applicants. Our local newspaper makes us list our available position on Monster.com. This produces hundreds of applications from individuals who appear not to have read the actual job description. The new breed of job applicant sends out mass mailings. So you get applications from a great-sounding candidate who happens to live in Zambia. One respondent told me that the fact that this was an in-office position and she lived out of state was not a problem since "I have friends near your office who I can shack up with."
A minister applied, as did an exotic dancer whose only stipulation was that sometimes she got off her night gig well into the morning so she "might be a little late for work on occasion." Another applicant wore all black to his interview, and during the course of our discussion he brought up the fact that he was a warlock.
Our office is located in a town filled with talented and ethical agency owners, but I am just not into trying to steal their staff.
On the other hand, we do have a college nearby with a huge travel program. In fact, it is the largest in the U.S. They have no current students who meet our profile.
Is this some sort of karma come home to roost? I have in the past strongly urged audiences to look at a career as an agent with a healthy dose of skepticism. How bright, I wondered, was our collective future?
Should I now position myself at the entrance to the tollway on-ramp near our office with a "Help Wanted" sandwich board? Am I really going to find the level of creativity and customer care I am seeking from a travel employment service?
Perhaps I need to turn to social media to get the word out. No one reads newspapers anymore. Perhaps we need to do something totally outrageous in our parking lot so our YouTube video of the available position can go viral.
I wonder how many other travel firms are in the position of having exciting job opportunities but no direct way to reach those applicants who might come to realize the genuine sense of fulfillment that can come from a career helping others realize their dreams. Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at email@example.com.