Despite a slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and uncertainty surrounding travel regulations and border crossings, travel is still expected to return to meaningful volumes this year, and agency owners have been advised by some consortia heads to staff up to meet the projected pent-up demand.
But hiring today is still sporadic, although some owners are considering upping the hours of existing staff members. They are also considering the factors that will nudge them to put out "now hiring" signs later this year, and all signals point to a large talent pool from which they will be able to draw.
Executive search and consultancy firm P. Jason King Associates has helped fill some roles recently, said executive vice president Steven Gorga. For the most part, they have been in areas such as head of marketing or business development, "more the one-off jobs," he said.
But the talent pool seeking placement through the company is large and ready to meet ramping demand. According to Gorga, the number of candidates is 80% higher than it was six months ago. Also promising is the fact that few are leaving the travel industry.
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"I think we've got about under 5% [who] have said they have left the industry, and, of course, they want to come back," he said. "Once you're in, it's tough to leave. It's such a fun industry and just so exciting."
Gorga said he believes as vaccination rates improve around the country, travel will return "in a massive way," likely in summer or fall.
In addition to offering executive search capabilities, P. Jason King Associates also operates the Yours in Travel Group for nonmanagement positions, including travel advisors. A large mix of advisors have signed up there, Gorga said.
At Prestige Travel Leaders in Cincinnati, president Dave Hershberger has worked to keep as many employees as possible throughout the pandemic.
Early on, he cut hours and pay, helping employees apply for partial unemployment. His first PPP loan helped restore pay to 100% through June, but when the loan ran out he returned his staff to 50% pay levels. In October, he furloughed about one-third of his staff.
Now, with his second PPP loan in hand, he brought back three of his six furloughed employees at reduced pay.
"I want to keep these people," Hershberger said. "We are going to rebound. The optimistic views point [to the] end of the second quarter or third quarter. I want to have my team in place. I want to come out of this running."
Prestige logged about 35% of its 2019 volume from June to December 2020, Hershberger said. January wasn't quite as good, though on one day last week, two UnCruise Adventures trips, a Universal Orlando Resort vacation and a few rail trips on Amtrak were among the day's bookings.
"It's not coming back quickly, but it's steady at that 25%-to-35% level of where it's been since June," he said of 2021.
Hershberger said he believes that with most of his employees still in place, he could ramp their hours and pay and hit 100% capacity very quickly. Once that happens, he would consider new hires to take advantage of what might be a short window when the talent pool may be large. He will also consider ways to make his existing advisors more efficient, such as creating an advisor concierge position, an entry-level post that would help seasoned advisors with the "grunt work," he said.
Ann Waters, president of Travel Leaders in Fort Wayne, Ind., had 45 employees at her five agency locations before the pandemic. That number has been reduced to 37 as several left the industry, others voluntarily furloughed and a few retired.
Like Hershberger, Waters has made it through the pandemic with help from PPP loans, state grants, local money and reduced staff hours. As business picks up, she plans to up her employees' hours, but she knows eventually she will hire more advisors. That decision will be predicated by several factors.
"One of the things I'm going to look for, and I'm not sure what it will look like, is stability in the rules and regulations of travel -- not just domestically, but globally, too," Waters said.
She will also base decisions on when her corporate clients are ready to send employees back on the road. New hires, she believes, will bring new experience into the agency, but there is risk in jumping too soon and hiring too quickly.
Hershberger agreed on both points.
"This could be a real opportunity for advisors to find a better match for their employer," he said, "and for employers to find good advisors who really want to work for you."