Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently released its 2016-2017 Occupational Outlook Handbook, and its topline view of travel agent prospects appeared to be unsettling: It predicted a 12% drop in the number of travel agents between 2012 and 2024.

Its findings were based on assumptions about online and mobile booking expansion, but it also acknowledged that growth in technology distribution could drive consumers toward human advisers who would help them make sense of the ever-expanding, perhaps ever more confusing, world of automated booking.

Is this data meaningful? It's certainly easier to find examples of failed 12-year outlooks than accurate ones, and, indeed, the BLS employment outlook predictions covering 2006-2016, published in November 2007, understandably failed to factor in the impact of the 2008 recession or smartphones. There is much discussion of the impact of baby boomers in the 2006 report, but nary a mention of the swelling ranks of millennials, even though their impact and scope had been identified as early as 2000.

I say this not to suggest that the new study is poorly constructed or executed but to question why anyone even bothers to invest in 12-year projections. Black swans seem to be swimming at us faster than torpedoes these days. Corporate America has begun to accept that a five-year predictive model will be about as realistic as the 1985 Soviet Five Year Plan.

The business plan, once considered a blueprint for building an enterprise (and raising capital) in America, has been replaced by inherently dynamic "growth plans," which presume that initial assumptions will be tested and that the business will morph accordingly. Investors are more interested in a management that has a track record of resourcefulness and creativity, has demonstrated flexibility and can articulate core values than one that presents data a decade into the future.

What I found most interesting in the Outlook is its current data, descriptions and definitions regarding travel agents. I think the authors of the report did an excellent job of summarizing the present day environment for agents, defining their duties and realistically laying out the importance of specialization and expertise.

But what might be most useful of all to agents are the charts showing where in the U.S. travel advisers are having the most financial success. The median wage for full-time agents is $34,800, well above the U.S. median wage of $26,700, with agents making, on average, $37,730. In some areas of the country, it's much higher.

It surprised me that wages varied so significantly based upon where an agent is located. I would have thought that with the decline of brick-and-mortar locations and the rise of home-based agents and online marketing, one would see a fairly even income spread across locations. That might even argue for controlling expense by locating in an area of the country where the cost of living is lower.

But that hasn't happened.

• There are more travel agents in California, our most populous state, than any other. The next four -- Florida, New York, Texas and Illinois -- are likewise ranked in order of population, with the exception of Texas, which has the second highest population. Agents do not seem to be taking advantage of cost-of-living savings; indeed, New York and California are also among the five states with the highest cost of living.

• Similarly, when looking at metropolitan areas, there are more agents working in and around the biggest cities: The top three -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- follow population rank. The outlier is Orlando, which nudges ahead of Dallas, even though it ranks 26th in population.

• The highest concentration of travel agents, by state, is found in Hawaii (1.59 per thousand), followed by Florida (0.92 per thousand), Nevada, Illinois and the District of Columbia (all with 0.75 per thousand). Hawaii and D.C. are, respectively, the two most expensive places to live in the U.S.

• When looking for high agent concentration in metro areas, Florida stands out, with cities ranked No. 1 (Orlando), No. 3 (Panama City) and No. 4 (Fort Lauderdale). Honolulu ranks second, and Bridgeport, Conn., is fifth. Again, no correlation between cost-of-living expenses and agent employment.

• In what states can one make the most money, on average, as a travel agent?

1. Massachusetts ($48,710). 2. New Hampshire ($46,530). 3. Virginia ($46,420). 4. Texas ($42,490). 5. Delaware ($42,020). For metro areas, the order is Boulder, Colo. ($61,640); Framingham, Mass. ($61,080); Nashua, N.H. ($51,250); Boston/Cambridge/Quincy, Mass. ($51,090); and Santa Ana/Anaheim/Irvine, Calif. ($49,240).

• Given the lower cost of living in rural vs. urban areas, the agents who come away with the most spending power might not work in or near cities. There are high concentrations of agents in southwestern Missouri, rural Hawaii/Maui/Kauai, north-central Colorado, western Montana and southwestern Wyoming.

And nonurban agents can do very well: Those in New Hampshire average $58,340; southwestern New Hampshire, $47,160; southern Vermont, $45,910; southwestern Wyoming, $45,540; and the Low Country of South Carolina, $41,980.

A suggestion for Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez: In addition to whatever reports Congress mandates, budget a little money to uncover the secret of why agents in Boulder and Framingham earn so much. And what, exactly, is in the water that agents are drinking in the South Carolina Low Country?


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