Wanted! Young agents

By Rebecca Tobin
en years ago, Lucy Norris worked at a Uniglobe franchise in Dallas. She cultivated a solid, affluent client base. She got up at 5:30 a.m. to handle seat upgrades for her travelers.

"I did a lot of personal hand-holding, making sure people's kids got picked up at the airport," Norris said. "I was a really good agent."

She did some traveling herself and, because she was an agent, she flew first class.

Before the caps, Norris recalled, she could fly to a lot of places. But she only earned $8.50 an hour. "So once I got there, I couldn't do anything."

Still, Norris enjoyed her job, but as the youngest employee in the office, she felt her boss didn't take her seriously. After two years, she quit the travel business for good.

She was 25 years old.

No payoff

How many more eager workers like Lucy Norris has the travel industry lost?

Nobody knows for sure, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that a career in retail travel is losing its appeal to young people due to growing skepticism about the future of the business and the perception that a job selling travel means lots of hard work with no big payoff.

An average travel agent salary, without commission compensation, is between $21,000 and $28,000 a year for agents with less than 10 years of experience, according to figures from Travel Weekly's 2002 Travel Industry Survey.

Therefore, attracting new talent to the business has become an increasingly difficult challenge.

"In any industry, you want to have fresh thinking and a blend of all ages," said Hal Rosenbluth, CEO of Rosenbluth International and an advocate of employing young talent.

"If people don't join who are young, and people retire and go on to do other things, there won't be anybody in this industry," he said. "There's got to be fresh blood coming in all the time."

Tell that to Nancy Chappie, who runs Travel University International in San Diego.

"Enrollments are down," she said. The school's outplacement program has found six open positions, and she doesn't have enough graduates to fill those jobs.

Chappie has taken on a lot of international students to fill her classes but most of them return home after their student visas expire.

She said many of her competitors -- other local travel schools -- have closed their doors.

"We have a total [enrollment] in the Travel Agent/Airlines class of about 40. ... We used to have 60 or 70. My hotel management class is very strong. It's just a shame."

Marc Mancini, a professor at West Los Angeles College, said that Generation X-ers are "far more pragmatic" than many of their baby-boomer predecessors.

"They want to get into something that will make them a good, successful living," Mancini said. "I think these people are looking at the entire travel industry and saying there's no future."

Agents, agency owners and instructors all pointed to one overarching

reason why young people would disregard a travel industry career: Negative publicity, both from outside the industry and from agents themselves.

"The press has created an image that [agents] are the poster children for disinter-mediation," Rosenbluth said. "For every business book that talks about the Internet and technology, they use the agency community as one that will go by the wayside."

Rosenbluth said he rejects the dire predictions for the trade -- but that young people, especially those not familiar with the business, believe the worst.

"The word out there is: 'Geez, why would I want to become an agent?' " said Chris Russo, a Denver-based entrepreneur who, at the age of 35, owns two Travel Partners agency locations.

"We have to change our tune: 'Hey, man, it's an exciting industry -- you want to get in on this.' We have to quit being our own worst enemy. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of negative agents out there."

Techies

Despite the negativity, younger travel agents who have grown up in the Internet age and are comfortable with computer technology can be an asset to agencies that are adapting to changing technology.

Russo said he is on the lookout for those who can build and maintain the technology that will keep him in close competition with the likes of Travelocity and Orbitz.

Some agencies still don't have e-mail connections, Russo said.

"Our technology will have to stay on a par with every online agency that's out there. We [have to] attract ... people who have that technology background."

Rosenbluth agreed that technology opens doors for younger agents, although he put a different spin on it: New technology in the call-center business, such as easy-to-use customer relationship management (CRM) databases, creates opportunities for new hires, including those with little background in the travel business.

Starting out

One longstanding problem with retail travel is that it lacks a career path for people getting into the business. Entry-level training, for example, has varied widely from place to place. Now it's disappearing.

Some colleges have travel programs, but many have dropped their agent classes or changed their focus.

A search on ASTA's Web site for travel schools in California, for example, yielded only 13 results. And the Boston-based Garber Travel School of America dropped the program in 1999 -- due to a lack of incoming students.

Russo said he's been asked several times about how to become an agent. People just don't know how to get into the business, he said.

"They think the way is to spend $500 and join a card mill," he said.

David Schoenberg, director of the travel and tourism program at LaGuardia Community College in New York, said upwardly mobile students -- young people who want to move into a lengthy career -- might pass over an agent position because the advancement pathways aren't clear.

"In a hotel, there are more possibilities for advancement," he said. "They may not see that as clearly in a travel agency."

Old pros

Helen Svenson, owner of Greenbelt (Md.) Travel Services, operates the travel program at the local Prince George's County Community College.

Svenson said bringing younger people into the business is "critical," but she suggests they may not be suited temperamentally to some aspects of retail travel.

"Young people are all 'I, me, my.' They're not interested in working through a problem with a client," she said. "They don't have the patience."

Travel agents with a few more years under their belt have more experience, both in travel and in business -- and that appeals to older clients, who have more money to spend.

Svenson added that "55 isn't considered old anymore."

But some young agents said they help to bring in new business. Younger clients, such as the youngest baby boomers and fellow Generation X-ers, can relate to them.

"I wouldn't say every young person would be put off by older agents because they know their stuff," said Kari Thomas, 29, who grew up in the business and now co-owns her family agency, Will Travel.

"But I do think it helps with image. My [28-year-old] sister is good with selling the Caribbean. She knows where all the big party places are."

Rosenbluth said younger agents can be just as effective sellers as their more experienced counterparts -- with good training.

"We've always had a proclivity to hire and train people as opposed to just hiring people with experience," he said. "I see people with drive in their 60s and 70s, and I see people with drive in their teens."

Mancini said agency owners should be on the lookout for younger people who aren't sure what career path they want to take but are excited about traveling on their own.

Emphasize the perks of traveling, he said; tell prospective hires the business is fun.

"There are challenges that await us in the next 10 years," Mancini said. "Boomers who are solid and smart -- we're going to start losing them soon."

Will they stay?

At 26, Jennifer Zeek is energetic, self-possessed and upbeat about the business.

Like many agents, Zeek was attracted to the job because she loved to travel.

"You can always sell something you're passionate about," she said.

Zeek took travel classes from Helen Svenson at the community college and then joined Svenson's agency.

She likes taking calls, and, like Kari Thomas, she fields a lot of inquiries from younger consumers.

"They love talking to me," she said. "I say, 'Do you like to do this? Because I love to.' And they say, 'That's exactly what we're looking for.' "

She volunteered to attend ASTA Cruisefest this year to do walk-throughs of the ships.

"I wanted to go and see all the ships; it was a given I was going," Zeek said. Her favorite activity is "getting down and dirty," putting together complicated FITs.

Svenson said Zeek brings new ideas to her agency. But, Svenson added, "she's tired. To make money she has to bartend at night. She can't afford to quit that other job."

Under-40 agent group plans ASTA get-together

ari Thomas is the co-owner of her family's business, Will Travel in Langhorne, Pa., and president of ASTA's Delaware Valley chapter.

She also is one month shy of 30, and it is largely for that reason that she is the chairwoman of a new ASTA group called Young Professionals.

The group's goal: to form a club and support group for agents, managers and entrepreneurs under 40, to foster a stronger sense of pride among their peers in the business, to network and, hopefully, to have a little fun.

Right now, Young Professionals has the names of only about 50 travel agents who fit that profile, but Thomas said she believes there are more Generation-X agents out there than people think.

"Part of the problem is ... they're out there and they're just not aware of the ways to get involved in the industry," she said. "They're not sure how to grow their career. They feel [they're at a] dead-end, and that's why they're leaving."

Thomas thinks Young Professionals might be able to stem that tide by providing forums for exchange of ideas as well as some solidarity.

The group held a few conference calls among members, but they have yet to meet face-to-face. That will change at the ASTA World Travel Congress in Honolulu, when the group will hold its first function, a casual reception set for Nov. 5 at the Aarons Restaurant at the Ala Moana Hotel.

Chris Russo, who started his travel agency career at the age of 23, said he is a big supporter of Young Professionals.

"I told [ASTA staff executive vice president] Bill Maloney, the young people are the future, and if we're not cultivating them now ... the organizations are going to go away," Russo said.

"[At the congress], we want to gather those people who are younger, who own their businesses, [as well as] managers and agents."

He highlighted the networking opportunities that he said will be "more in line with what our age group likes."

And -- no offense, ASTA -- but young agents pointed out they sometimes feel a little, well, young.

"Most of this stuff is geared toward an older crowd," Russo said. "I'm not going to be too interested in hanging around."

That's OK, Maloney said. The Young Professionals group will be an ongoing core activity at every ASTA function from now on. -- R.T.

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