The Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
continues to predict a decline in the number of travel agents in the U.S. over
the next 10 years, despite strong evidence from the industry suggesting the
opposite is true.
Even Labor's own statistics paint a picture that is out of
sync with its predictions.
The latest numbers from Labor's Occupational Outlook
Handbook, updated in the fall, tallied 81,700 agents in the U.S. in 2016 but
predicted a 12% decline over the decade from 2016 to 2026.
The bureau's previous count of agents also predicted a 12%
decline in the number of agents between 2014 and 2024. However, it stated that
in 2014, there were 74,100 travel agents in the U.S.
In fact, Labor's own numbers show that from 2014 to 2016,
the number of agents actually increased 10.3%, yet the bureau continues to
predict a decline.
Its reasoning, as stated in the Occupational Outlook
Handbook, is as follows:
"The ability of travelers to use the internet to
research vacations and book their own trips is expected to continue to suppress
demand for travel agents. Job prospects should be best for travel agents who
specialize in specific destinations or particular types of travelers."
ASTA strongly disputes Labor's notion that agents are on the
decline in the U.S.
"We really question the pessimism that BLS continues to
publish," said Mark
Meader, senior vice president of industry affairs. "We
don't think it's accurate, we don't think it's correct, and it's an old
assumption, long-standing, that needs to change. It's outdated."
Meader also said the Society believes Labor's number of
agents in the U.S. -- 81,700 as of 2016 -- is on the low end. ASTA subscribes
to a count by the Census Bureau, which found 105,085 agency employees in the
United States as of 2015.
The research firm IBISWorld also conducted a study that
showed a much higher number of U.S. agents: 232,848. The numbers vary so much
for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they are arrived at by using
different methodologies. For example, the Census Bureau's number takes into
account agency employees who might not be agents. The Census Bureau's tally has
also fluctuated over the years. In order, from 2010 to 2015, its count of agents
was 105,458; 97,149; 100,295; 99,888; 118,974; and 105,085.
Stephanie Lee, founder of the website HostAgencyReviews.com,
said getting an accurate count of agents has become increasingly difficult in
recent years because of the changing industry.
"If we compare it to 15 years ago, the agency
distribution channel is entirely different. It's fragmented, which poses all
sorts of problems for vendors and apparently for government agencies," she
Kevin Wang, ASTA's director of research, also said that
accurately counting the number of agents in the U.S. is difficult. It is also
likely that the industry's independent contractors (ICs), who are steadily
rising in numbers, are not being accurately counted.
"The self-employed travel agent and probably many, if
not most, ICs -- the hobbyist agent, etc.-- they're either not tracked or very
hard to track," Meader said.
Despite the difficulties in counting agents, ASTA uses the
Census Bureau's latest number, around 105,000, but also recognizes that
IBISWorld's number likely captures ICs and could potentially represent the high
end of agent tallies.
"We've chosen to use that number," Meader said. "It's
the closest to what we think represents the most likely picture, recognizing
the constraints or the weaknesses that surround it. It's not necessarily a true
picture, but close -- the closest, anyway."
Eben Peck, ASTA's executive vice president for advocacy,
pointed out that in the most recent five years for which data is available,
2011 through 2015, the Census Bureau's number of agency employees has grown by
"There are no hard and fast answers in terms of how to
explain the [in our eyes] welcome development of these baseline increases,"
Peck said in a statement. "But I would note that our members have been
reporting improved business conditions post-recession."
Peck also asserted that U.S. outbound travel spending is
Meader said that ASTA has met with the BLS in the past to
explain that the assumption that there will be a decrease in agent numbers is
outdated, as is Labor's statement that online booking will result in consumers
moving away from agents.
"I frankly think it's easier for them to leave it
status quo and not make any changes, leave their assumption the way it is,"
Labor's prediction of decline flies in the face of reports
from around the industry of growth in agent networks and agencies.
Valerie Wilson Travel is one of those growth agencies.
Co-owners and co-presidents Kimberly Wilson Wetty and Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg
said their business continues to grow year over year.
Over the past few years, they said, they have seen an
increase in the interest in becoming a travel adviser, either as an employee or
an independent contractor. Much of that interest, they said, is coming from "career
changers and the millennial market," though it is somewhat tempered by
some retiring agents. Still, they said, "We remain optimistic."
Virtuoso is also reporting growth. As of this January, the
network has 17,500 travel advisers, up 15% year over year. While some of that
growth comes from new agencies joining the network, Virtuoso reported that 64%
of it comes from new advisers joining existing member agencies. David Kolner,
senior vice president of global member partnerships, said Virtuoso is not
anticipating any decline in membership, either.
Phocuswright analyst Mary Pat Sullivan said, "I agree
that the idea of the industry shrinking is incorrect. I think the rise of the
IC certainly has a great deal to do with this. Maybe some of the
brick-and-mortar numbers are shrinking, but overall the population is
absolutely growing. The ranks of ICs at Virtuoso, Travel Leaders, Signature
agencies, etc., are exploding. The franchise numbers for companies like Cruise
Planners and CruiseOne/Dream Vacations are soaring."