Attempts to lure advisors away from competitors is a practice that has been around as long as travel agencies have existed.
Agencies, franchisers and consortia have always welcomed new, experienced members who have worked for the competition. But it appears to have ratcheted up considerably during the pandemic.
Historically, it happened on familiarization trips, ship launches or at conferences. But during the pandemic, tactics have gone virtual, and some say recruiting efforts have reached never-before-seen levels with controversial tactics.
"What I am seeing at a higher level than I've ever seen in the industry is, frankly, poaching other [group's] independent contractors and employees," said Robert Joselyn, CEO of Joselyn Consulting Group.
In some cases, Joselyn said, an organization such as a host agency has sent emails soliciting new members to entire agencies, even the owners.
Amanda Klimak, president and co-owner of Largay Travel in Waterbury, Conn., has also seen an uptick in solicitation of her team of advisors.
"Recently there has been a noticeable increase in the level and frequency of solicitations, but there has also been a significant number of advisors who have contacted and joined us as the result of some large agencies eliminating their leisure divisions and focusing on quantity over quality," she said.
It's a competitive reality, according to Klimak, one she accepts as long as it's done within the rules and regulations of an agency's consortium (in Largay's case, Virtuoso). Violations of solicitation policies undermine the value of the Virtuoso community, she said, and are unacceptable.
The downtime created by the pandemic has likely had something to do with advisor movement, posited Keith Waldon, founder and director of Departure Lounge in Austin, Texas.
"There has been a good bit of movement because advisors have had the extra time to review their options," Waldon said. "With travel bookings snapping back strongly now, that movement may slow down."
Several sources pointed to Travel Edge as particularly active in recruitment efforts of late. The Toronto-based host agency is No. 21 on Travel Weekly's 2020 Power List.
Michael Johnson, president of Travel Edge, said a number of ICs and agency owners began contacting his agency when the reality of the pandemic set in. As such, "we saw it was an opportunity to reach out to the community, to step up with options and information and to demonstrate our passion in the industry. Above all, we felt it was important to invest in the bedrock of our industry, the independent contractor."
Travel Edge offered limited-time signing bonuses of up to $250,000 for ICs, he said. The agency advertised its hosting services via trade media, specifically, Travel Weekly and parent company Northstar Travel Group. As a result, "thousands" of ICs got in touch with the host.
"We want independent contractors to know that they have a choice, because we believe that it's their right to decide what's best for their business," Johnson said.
While a number of host agencies said they have not changed their marketing approach to attract potential new members, Andy Ogg -- co-owner of FindaHostTravelAgency.com and HomeBasedTravelAgent.com -- has noticed a shift in messaging from some from "'Join us' to 'Is your host there for you?'" he said.
"As a travel professional, streamlining and becoming more efficient is key as we move forward and get back to travel," Ogg said. "Travel professionals' host agency affiliation is crucial to their success, and while there are many great hosts in the marketplace, some are simply in a better place to pounce on the opportunities that are coming."
Onboarding experienced agents is a goal for many hosts, Ogg said. But he has noticed an uptick in new-to-the-industry users on his websites, and as travel resumes, he said he believes messaging will switch to target those individuals.
Cruise Planners recently launched a marketing campaign around the message, "It's rough sailing out there for all of us right now. People will travel again, but are you confident your host can weather this storm and navigate an uncertain future?"
The wording was developed after a number of experienced agents found their way to Cruise Planners during the pandemic, said Vicky Garcia, co-owner and COO. They said their former agencies were no longer offering them the same levels of support, often due to pandemic-related layoffs. Often, these agents had not previously considered a franchise model, she said, but had the time to think about it during the pandemic.
"We're not desperate for new agents by any means, but we do want to find those who are looking for a home," she said. "We want to make sure they find a good home."
Recruitment efforts are inevitable in any industry, including travel, Joselyn said. He advised those who want to retain their current ICs or employees to cultivate close relationships and deep support systems.
"It's part of the free enterprise system," he said, "and I've always felt that if an employee or an IC were happy with whatever marriage they were in, then they wouldn't leave so easily."