ArnieWeissmannThree weeks before the value of the stock market dropped a trillion-plus dollars in a single day last September, I moderated a panel at TheTradeShow in Orlando about looming economic uncertainty. Afterward, a young Irishman came up and wanted to talk about a topic that, while it interests me, didn't seem at the time to directly relate to what the panel had just been discussing.

He wanted to talk about recruiting new blood into the travel agency community. The young man, Robert Tynan, was the director of global recruitment for Admiral Travel Gallery in Sarasota, Fla. He followed up with an email a few weeks later, noting that in turbulent economic times, "it is vital to be adaptable and innovative. ... Many are attracted to the world of travel ... and some are looking for a career change into our industry."

Looking at rising unemployment numbers last week, I thought about those comments and wondered if the talent pool for potential travel agents had increased significantly, making Tynan's job easier.

So I phoned to ask him, and I received a thoughtful, complex answer.

Admiral Travel Gallery has several components, he began. It is a Virtuoso-affiliated brick-and-mortar agency, a host agency for home agents and a tour operator, putting together unique, celebrity-led tours (hosted, for example, by chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Roy Yamaguchi, Salvatore Ferragamo's vintner-grandson and Winston Churchill's granddaughter and biographer, Celia Sandys).

Tynan focuses on finding home agents to expand the hosting operation. "Initially, I thought we'd be able to create a new business model. We would not charge a hosting fee and would let agents keep 70% of the commission. We thought a 70/30 split with no fee would give agents the leeway they'd need to build a client base."

Tynan said he used a recruitment tool that gave him a flood of leads. "I was talking to up to 20 people a week. I thought it was fantastic. But in the end, we only kept about 2% of the applicants.

"We learned so much along the way. We thought that the hunger people might feel after losing a position would drive them. But we found it takes a combination of a strong personality as well as strength of knowledge and experience. We need to find people who have innovative ideas."

After "three months of hard slog" with his recruiting strategy, Tynan decided it was necessary to have the "spur" of the monthly fee, so he instituted a $250 fee, but he also increased the portion of commission that agents keep to 80% (or, for a $500 monthly fee, they could keep 90%).

To better identify those who are ultimately unlikely to work out, he has "added a couple of rungs" to the recruitment process. "There are plenty of people out there but not plenty of talent. And we want to make sure the people who are affiliated with us represent our brand in the way we want. Our branding is all we have." 

Admiral Travel Gallery carries a fair amount of overhead dedicated to its expansion plans -- two IT staffers to hone technology as well as a full-time recruiter -- so I was surprised to hear how few agents the 12-year-old agency had. "Five [in-house] agents and 11 home agents that we host," Tynan said. "We had 32 [home agents] at one point, but we decided to cut out the deadwood."

It occurred to me as we spoke that Admiral Travel Gallery is in many ways at the opposite end of the hosting spectrum from agencies such as Joystar and YTB, whose recruitment strategy has focused primarily on quantity.

Tynan took it further. "Home agents are the future," he said. "And the agencies that want quantity rather than quality are a bad reflection on the rest of us. They don't seem to care how a person reflects their brand, and don't care if they dilute their overall brand name. They seemed to have lost control a long time ago. Ours is a family business; it's about integrity, and that won't change no matter how big we get."

I'm glad he noted that integrity and scale are not incompatible. Among the positive changes that seem to be coming about as a result of our economic crisis is that integrity is back in style. In the end, one hopes that long after the economy recovers, it's still remembered that an absence of integrity produces an unsustainable business model, while a strategy that emphasizes integrity creates a stable foundation to enable long-term financial success.

Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].

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