Introduction: As industry soars, innovation will draw new talent

There have been a few exceptions, but almost everyone I've spoken to recently who works in retail or travel trade sales or marketing is in a good mood.

Many of the reasons why are outlined in this special report on consumer travel research commissioned by Travel Weekly:

  • If you're an online travel agency, you're benefiting from the 37% surge in online-travel spending and a 17% overall improvement in look-to-book ratios.
  • If you're a supplier seeking direct bookings, you're actually the primary beneficiary of the rise in online booking.
  • "Traditional" travel advisers continue to attract the consumers who take the most number of trips per year, take the longest trips and spend the most money per day, all solidifying their position as the highest-yielding -- and thus most attractive to suppliers -- distribution channel in travel.
  • Those whose businesses are part of the sharing economy saw a huge leap in recognition and a solid leap in bookings over this past year.
  • Sites that provide travel reviews have now overtaken even friends and family as the most trusted source of recommendations.
  • International travel, typically a more profitable segment than domestic, is increasing.
  • Luxury travel continues to boom.
  • Increasing numbers of travel sellers are comfortable with, or have mastered, social media.
  • Millennials are not only consulting live travel advisors, but they're showing a taste for upscale experiences.

Throw in what we already know from other sources -- airlines have maintained capacity discipline and prices remain at historically high levels (though no longer growing as quickly as last year), hotels are enjoying high occupancy and revenue per available room, and the dollar is strong -- and one sees support for a robust and growing industry.

Even on the destination front, there's excitement; I can't recall a time when there was as much buzz about a specific location as we've seen about Cuba this year.

All that, plus innovations in cruising, greater accessibility to truly authentic travel experiences via tour operators, the reduction of airport friction (thanks to increased use of TSA Pre-Check, Global Entry and kiosks in immigration halls) and improvements in visa facilitation -- it all adds up to support continued optimism about the industry, barring unexpected events.

Which brings me to one quote in the article, "Younger travelers an emerging force in luxury spending."

David Kolner, senior vice president of global member partnerships for Virtuoso, after discussing the rising demand for the services of travel advisers, reminded us of a possible brake on growth for the travel agency channel. The big question, he said, is, "Are we going to have enough agents?"

It's a concern that has been voiced since the industry began to show signs of post-recession growth. Suppliers who depend upon agents for high margins saw the channel aging without new blood coming in. Travel agent training courses, which were quite common in community colleges, at travel agencies and even at the high school in the 1980s and 1990s, had all but disappeared after 9/11, and the few that opened over the past couple of years did not provide enough graduates to allay concerns.

Agency groups, notably Travel Leaders, and professional organizations launched initiatives aimed at attracting new agents.

I'm not too concerned about a shortage of talent for the simple reason that I just can't think of one industry in the history of commerce which, when growing quickly, didn't attract smart people looking for opportunities.

Agency franchising brings business-minded Gen-Xers and boomers into travel, often in traditional formats (ironically, ExpediaCruiseShipCenters, a division of the largest online travel agency, insists that its franchisees have a storefront location).

And I've met several millennials selling travel in traditional ways whose greatest fear is competition from other millennials who might also discover that selling travel is profitable and fun.

But the form that opportunity takes may not always look familiar to industry veterans. Much of the excitement in retail travel incorporates new ways to sell travel that rely heavily on evolving technology.

There are new entrants who take advantage of blending new and older models. I recently spoke to a man in his late 20s who has been buying up existing brick-and-mortar travel agencies and increasing their profitability not only through technology upgrades, but by updating operational approaches and simply creating a more contemporary business culture. He said he keeps looking over his shoulder, wondering when others will see how much opportunity there is in this approach.

The bottom line: Agencies that bemoan the lack of talent but won't also embrace contemporary tools, not only of the trade, but of modern culture, will indeed find a shortage of willing applicants.

In an industry as vital as travel is today, if there's a talent vacuum, supply will rise to meet demand, but most of that talent will be attracted to agencies that seem to be driving change rather than coasting along.

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