All my children idolize chefs. My youngest, age 10, has two autographed photos of chefs on his dresser. My middle child, 12, requested that he have his birthday dinner at a restaurant run by a celebrity chef. And when I secured two tickets to "Iron Chef America" a few years ago, my daughter, then 17, reacted with more excitement than I had seen her display in advance of an Usher concert.
Reality TV. "Iron Chef," "Chopped," "Restaurant: Impossible" and "Mystery Diners" are among their favorite shows, and chefs -- even more than the food they prepare -- intrigue them.
I thought about this as about 60 concerned travel agents, suppliers and association officers met at the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, Fla., last week during the inaugural ASTA Young Professionals Society Blue Sky Symposium to brainstorm on the topic "The Future Travel Agent Workforce."
It was clear that the theme was not going to trigger an exploration of how the agent population will evolve. The focus was far more fundamental and worrisome: For the most part, young people are not attracted to a career selling travel.
The meeting was informed by two contemporaneous events: The vehement agent reaction to an article on WomansDay.com which said that agents put their own interests ahead of their clients, and the launch, later that day and in the same venue as the symposium, of Travel Weekly's Global Travel Marketplace (GTM), which brought together 100 agents who collectively produce $300 million in retail sales.
The contrast between the image portrayed by the online article and the professionalism on display at GTM could not have been more stark, but it also underscored that the challenge facing the industry is rooted in image. The suppliers represented at the Blue Sky Symposium, including major cruise lines, tour operators and hoteliers, were clearly concerned, with Trafalgar Tours President Paul Wiseman noting that he expects up to 40% of his top-selling agents to retire in the next five years.
The room was divided into seven breakout groups. While there was some discussion about the WomansDay.com article and its portrayal of travel agents as being unprofessional, of greater concern was the perception that travel agents are increasingly viewed as anachronistic.
The widespread belief that agents have no future makes them unattractive to potential clients, employees and investors. And though young agents in attendance offered testimonials to the vibrancy of their businesses, their viewpoint is clearly in the minority among their generational peers.
Advertising and PR campaigns were suggested, though it was acknowledged they are likely prohibitively expensive. Toward the end of the program, ASTA CEO Zane Kerby announced that ASTA is working with PBS on a series of videos that will feature interviews with travel agents.
But judging from the young people I know best, I'd say Kerby may be speaking with the wrong network. Reality TV, not PBS, is the way to reach the hearts and minds of the millennial workforce. Food Network understands that cooking is not inherently dramatic, but its reality show format overlays personality and competition onto a subject that's familiar to absolutely everyone, and the result is an increased interest not only in food but in the process and the people who bring creative solutions to the problems with which they're presented.
A travel agent reality show was tried once before, but the format has since been refined. As every travel counselor knows, you really don't have to contrive a vacation planning process that is fraught with conflict, potential disaster and circumstances beyond anyone's control. Start with clients from hell -- a demanding couple who can't agree on anything and have expectations that far exceed their budgets -- and have three young wannabe travel agents try to put together a trip for them. Experienced agents will judge their progress, eliminating a competitor along the way, and the agent with the best plan gets a job at a prestigious agency.
A camera crew follows the challenging clients on their adventures (or misadventures) and they report satisfaction, or lack thereof, at the end.
The judges and winner will add star power to their agencies, and even runner-ups will become celebrity vacation planners.
But the big winner will be the agency community as a whole. What "The Love Boat" did for cruising, "Vacation: Impossible" will do for agents.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.