According to ASTA, Virtuoso and a host of other industry groups, the biggest single industry problem is that good travel agents are really hard to find and even harder to hire.
At the same moment in history when appreciation for our profession and the consumer's propensity to utilize the services of an agent are on the rise, the travel industry finds itself on the cusp of a professional personnel shortage, despite recruiting for one of the sexiest jobs on Earth.
I've decided to address this topic by getting a bit personal. I don't want to ask colleagues to go on the record with tales of frustration as they attempt to staff a newly created position while trying to fill those of agents who have had to vacate their profession because the rest-home management insists that they try to relax and take out their teeth.
If I get you to talk about your journey to hire really talented people, and your inability to find them, agencies in your neighborhood might get a bit paranoid about your intentions. So let me tell you a bit about my struggles over the past decade to find perfect matches for positions I have not been able to fill for as long as 10 years.
First, for the big picture, I turn to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 1990, "The Simpsons" premiered, and the first commercial page of the World Wide Web wouldn't appear for another year. There were 132,000 travel agencies in the U.S. Fam trips to Cancun and Maui were so congested that folks were tripling up on rooms and sharing margaritas by the pool with two straws.
But the decline started soon afterward, and by 2014 the number of agencies was nearly halved, with only 71,000 agencies still in business. The BLS has projected an annual decline in the number of agencies of about 12% annually going forward.
Of course, that says less about the condition of our industry than one might think. With agency consolidation, new host models and the off-the-tracks growth of the independent agent, our industry is thriving. Or it would be were it not for the disturbing fact that we can't find enough really terrific people to staff our agencies.
The government has issued the following statistics for 2016: The typical entry-level travel agent has a high school diploma and zero work experience in the industry. The median pay in our industry last year was $17.53 per hour, which works out to $35,460 per year.
Now, of course, we have several new business models, one of which is the host agency. Agents pay a monthly fee for office and internal staff costs, which means they need no office of their own. The glass ceiling has been broken for several years, and any number of the better outside sales agents -- those bringing in more than $1 million per year -- are able to retain as much as 100% of their commissions.
Think about the skill set modern travel consultants need to possess. They have to be able to discuss a large portion of the planet's destinations in depth and with accuracy. They need to know places worth seeing, how best to see them, the best on-site company to use and whether a cruise, an escorted tour or private arrangement is preferable. They need to know weather patterns and the very best and worst times to visit each location. They have to be master sales people, using their knowledge to counsel clients on how they might best utilize their precious vacation time. Social scientists tell us that time is our most valuable possession. The travel consultant must advise us how best to use it.
But that is not the end of the job description. Really good consultants must understand that their typical clients -- at least this is the case at our firm -- are going to spend more with them in a year, on average, than they will spend with their physician, their attorney, their accountant or their therapist.
True, most of that money doesn't end up in the agent's hands, but the client understands little of this. The client sees that a proper safari experience for a family of four can easily exceed the price of a new Tesla sedan.
We have been looking for the world's best travel consultant for several years. We've conducted just two interviews. Our starting salary is $50,000. We also include all of our staff in profit-sharing which comes out, on average, to more than $5,000 per year. We permit staff to take off whenever they choose to and to work extra hours for pay whenever they need to. We provide travel and professional meeting stipends.
Oh, and one more thing: The person we are seeking never has to sell anything. Our clients come to us, and we simply need the world's finest travel consultant to take the best possible care of them.
Our consultants work with a highly trained concierge team, every member of which works the days he or she cares to work. Our average concierge team member works a three-day week and earns in excess of $40,000 in salary and bonus.
We do not pay commission to anyone who works for us. Everyone is on salary, everyone knows what their next paycheck will be, and every staff member knows that he or she will not have to work with airlines (we have never done air).
But how do I find the people I need? Top people rarely go to employment agencies. They don't need to if they know they are in demand. In the old days I would place an ad in the local newspaper. It came out a few times each week and everyone read it. Now, you can't just place an ad in the paper. You have to buy a package that places your ad in cyberspace where actual Martians appear to be applying for the position.
We've tried this route using Indeed and other online sources. There seems to be absolutely no real filtering. For some reason, I was getting travel agent applicants who lived abroad and thought they could convince me that they didn't really need to be working out of my office.
I've specified the kind of travel experience we would want. I've tried as clearly as I could, to describe exactly what my concierge team does and exactly what a true luxury consultant would do at our firm. And my only conclusion is that I have lost my writing skills. I cannot communicate what I need. I have actually sent responses to applicants explaining, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."
My experience interviewing online tells me that readers see "part-time or full-time" position. What they do not see is that we have actual office locations and people there with whom they need to interact. I do not think they understand that not having to sell anything and not having to deal with air creates a rather unique job description. They need to be open to understanding it.
But my search for the perfect employee is ongoing, frustrated by my belief that the internet has, once again, proven itself a hindrance to communication rather than an improvement.
I will get totally serious about this at some point. That might mean setting up my own training institute on weekends to attract and retain the very best people. I am certainly ready to talk with successful business people outside the industry. I know I could fill the positions I have in mind if I would only let our clients know we are looking.
But we're happily staffed at the moment, and I am not in panic mode. I am, as you might detect, just a tad frustrated that with all of the social media addicts out there, getting through the noise to advertise a possible job of a lifetime seems to be getting harder and harder.