The 2012 Travel Industry Survey reveals that there are significant personality differences between home-based and brick-and-mortar (i.e., retail) agents, which are reflected in the relative success of the two business models (see the full report starting here).
Since 2007, the survey has divided agents into three psychographic groups, based on an analysis of how they view their daily lives as agents. The segments were labeled the Contenteds, the Seekers and the Careerists. They are described as follows. (Click on the chart, left, for a larger view of the leisure-business split of psychographic groups.)
• The Contenteds love almost everything about their day-to-day activities, especially the opportunity to travel as part of their jobs. They feel that being a travel agent is an exciting and interesting occupation, despite the many challenges agents face today. Most will continue to do what they do now for the foreseeable future, and they don't see many bumps in the road that could change their positive views.
• The Seekers express unhappiness at having chosen to be travel agents and, if they could start over, would enter another field. They worry about the future and feel that the problems travel agents face today will probably increase over the next few years. They find it difficult to make an adequate living as an agent, and they anticipate leaving the field in the near future.
• Careerists also like to travel, and they enjoy being part of the industry. But the distinguishing characteristic is that they feel they made a good occupational choice. They enjoy most of their daily activities and, more than the other two groups, they expect to increase their revenue and profits over the next few years.
While the pattern had already been established, this year's survey showed a growing personality divide between home-based and retail agents, with Careerists dominating home-based agents, even though they may only be part-timers.
Among the major findings this year:
- The three groups showed similar results to the previous year: Seekers dominated the retail agencies, while Careerists dominated home-based agents.
- Careerists dominated among home-based agents who showed net gains in revenue, making up 52% of that group. Seekers accounted for 59% of retail agents who saw revenue decline last year.
- The percent of retail agents in the Careerists category has not changed significantly in recent years. However, it appears there has been some increase in the proportion of home-based Careerists since the beginning of the recession.
- Home-based agents do far more leisure business, which might explain the high number of Contenteds and Careerists; there is more consulting opportunity with leisure clients than with business travelers, who know where and how they want to travel.
Bottom line: When agents are serious about their careers, they tend to do better. Several veteran industry observers saw merit in these results. (Click on the image, left, for a larger view of a chart of the number of years as a travel agent by psychographic group.)
"When I read those categories," said Scott Koepf, vice president of sales for Avoya Travel, "I look at it a little differently. To me, the first category [Contenteds] sees the glass as half full, the second [Seekers] as glass half empty and the third [Careerists] are people who really want to drink the water. That is true of every career, but in travel the question is becoming, 'Maybe we have had a higher percentage of glass-half-empty folks, but maybe that's changing with time.' I think the real difference in our business is the willingness and ability to change."
He added: "This trend will tilt the industry more toward the Careerists type. Not only do they have a good attitude, but they are willing to, and want to, adapt to how their business is modeled to be successful.
"The difference in our industry that makes it unique is that in many of those industries people are employees; with us they are employers," he said. "In other industries, the employer would soon discover who the Seekers are and bump them out of there. They would soon discover who the Careerists are and put all their effort behind them."
He added: "What also makes our business unique is that agents can have gross annual sales of $10,000 as a part-timer and consider themselves a Careerist; that is how they would self-categorize even if they worked only four hours a week at their business."
Koepf said the industry is "moving toward the more committed people," adding. "The Seekers will be the first to go, but the Contenteds will be driven out eventually. It happens in every industry, and it's a culmination of the 80-20 rule, with 20% doing 80% of the business. The 20% will typically be Careerists."
Koepf said it did not surprise him "that Seekers predominate in an office environment. You will find many old-school employees who may work in an agency for many years and not like it. But in a home-based environment, the Seekers will not survive very long."
Another analyst offered a pop culture analogy to the agent psychographic profiles and also attributed some results to age differences. Most retail agents have been in the business a very long time, prompting Marc Mancini, who heads up Marc Mancini Seminars and Consulting, to observe: "It's not surprising that there was a flight attendant Barbie. But no one seems to remember that there was also a travel agent Barbie. Both careers were perceived at one time as glamorous, exciting and for the young."
Today, Mancini said, "flight attendants — at least North American ones — tend largely to be veterans who still like their job, veterans burned out from years of work or career changers who now want to do something different. This matches the three agent categories, though perhaps being a flight attendant still retains a bit of its appeal to young people."
Mancini called the home-based trend a "game changer."
"It permits you to work as much or as little as you want, when you want," he said. "That's a huge benefit, one that helps outweigh the downside of travel agents in the same way that perks used to. And for productive agents, some of the perks are still there, so it's not surprising the home-based segment is dominated by the Careerist category."
Travel Leaders agents prove to be a Careerist-minded bunch
Here is how some agents affiliated with the Travel Leaders Group see themselves in psychographic terms:
All except one consider themselves Careerists; and the exception considers herself a combination of Careerist and Contented. None self-described as a Seeker. Elena Pelsinger, Travel Leaders, Houston:
"Can you be a combo? I belong to the last one [Careerist] for sure. What if you like being an agent today more than you did before, less an order-taker and more a dream-maker?" Mary Krueger, Butterfly Travel, Lino Lakes, Minn.:
"I love what I do, and I love working with my clients. I am always looking for ways to improve my process and add new features to my business. I have a running list of ideas to implement that never seems to get any smaller. I have been an independent affiliate of Nexion since 2004. Although I was brand new to the travel industry at that time, I have seen consistent growth year after year." Kim Caudill, Kim 4 Honeymooners, Fort Wayne, Ind.:
"I sell honeymoons and destination weddings, and this market needs travel agents. Let me rephrase that: This market needs good, passionate agents! These are far more important trips to people than their everyday vacations. I am rewarded every day by tons of thank-you notes and solid commission checks. I work hard to increase my sales each year and am successful at doing that, as well as supporting my host and its preferred suppliers. I like being an agent more today than when I first started. Host agencies allow us to sell the travel and work with the people more than doing so much paperwork!" Lisa Gilliatt, DU Agency, Cedar Rapids, Iowa:
"I love the challenge of our day-to-day business. It is especially rewarding when we organize a promotion or event that is well-received and attended by the public. I take the requests from our regular clients and organize escorted group departures that appeal to not only our existing clients but to ... new clients, as well. For example, South Africa has been a destination we have had a lot of interest in and requests for. After researching many options, we arranged a private, 16-day 'South African Experience' for a group departure in February 2014. In only four days, we have sold 31 passengers on this group departure, which only accommodates 34 passengers. My personal mantra is: 'If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got!'" Becky Jones, Becky Jones Travel, San Antonio:
"I have been in the industry for 34 years. ... I worked for several large companies until seven years ago, managing staffs of 10 to 20 but was never fairly compensated. I took a leap of faith seven years ago by going home-based and joining Nexion. I had an opportunity two-and-a-half years ago to acquire a storefront, so went full circle to the brick and mortar. Though 98% of my business ($1.3 million) is repeat and referral, I have some strong commission-based agents with whom I have worked since the 1980s. As a Careerist, I do love to travel, but have 'been there and done that' and really love home and my Texas coast. ... I certainly expect my revenue to continue to climb. One simple reason: relationships. My business is relational, not transactional. ... I love my 12- to 15-hour days." Steve Lincoln, Bridgewater, Va. (Nexion member):
"I can think of no other industry that offers the breadth of challenge and constant evolution that this one does. ... As more and more options become available to the consumer, our role becomes increasingly beneficial. Our experience helps to narrow the overwhelming amount of information available to the traveling public. As different areas of the world become accessible and different products become available, the potential to increase our client base is exponential. There are so many areas of this industry I would consider rewarding, but the opportunity to share my travel experiences with a client is priceless." Sondra Wilson, Richland, Wash. (Travel Leaders):
"Here I am, at 67 years old, celebrating our 30th year in business, still excited about my company, still very proud of what we created and the product we give to our clients. Sure, it's no cakewalk, but pleasure comes from our clients liking what we do for them. I don't feel we'll ever be replaced by the box on the desk. We aren't for everyone, but we give such value. As marketing director, I interface every day with suppliers. I like what I do and enjoy working with them to forward awareness of their product and, ultimately, mine. They are professionals, but so am I. And I am lucky to be in this business." -- H.C.