How many travel agents in U.S.? Depends on whom you're asking

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Photo Credit: George Rudy/Shutterstock

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 It's outdated."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 said.

Competing methodologies

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 about 8%.

"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 increasing.

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," he said.

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."

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