These young agents are businesspeople.
At a session about young travel professionals held at the New York Times Travel Show in New York last month, participants discussed what differentiates today's young agents from those from a generation ago.
"Yes, we love travel," said Josh Kittle, travel counselor with Travel Options in Louisville, Ky., and vice president of ASTA's Young Professionals Society, summing up the discussion at one table. But, he added, "It's more of a business."
Just like any other professional, today's agents recognize the speed of response consumers expect in the age of Internet-connected smartphones. And that means responding to a middle-of-the-night email if necessary.
One man who knows that well is David Kartagener, co-founder of Young Travel Professionals and vice president of Kartagener and Associates, a sales representative for high-end companies selling to the travel trade. It's not unusual for agents to request a full proposal for a two-week, three-country itinerary in South Asia with a 24-hour turnaround.
At the same time, that kind of speed has its merits. Ryan McGredy, owner of Moraga Travel and president of the Young Professionals Society, restructured his software business in order to phase himself out of its operations so he could devote himself full time to travel. Compared with travel, he said, software was boring.
"This business is so much more fun, even though it's way more stressful," he said.
Travel holds another appeal for entrepreneurial young people.
It has a "low- to no-cost barrier to entry," according to Carl Winston, the director of San Diego State University's L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. SDSU encourages its entrepreneurial students to follow that internal drive, because their youth means they generally don't struggle with house payments or have families to support.
NYU's Minnaert said she has never seen so many students start their own businesses while still in school.
"I'm astounded," she said. "They get the funding, they get it off the ground, they don't wait to get out the door. I have never seen it at such a scale before. And they do it, and they infect each other."
One common trait she sees among these young travel entrepreneurs is a strong sense of social responsibility.
"When they start their own business, they are more socially aware," she said. "It's, 'How can I give back to society?' They do special initiatives, they think about it, which makes me very happy."
Whet Travel is an example of that model. Jason Beukema, its founder, charters cruise ships, transforms the onboard experience, then fills the ships with like-minded music fans for concerts at sea. He books about 13,000 travelers annually.
The company's Whet Foundation operates two programs. Community Captains works with underprivileged students. Destination Donation collects materials from cruisers such as school supplies and clothing to deliver to orphanages and charities in Mexico and the Bahamas; cruises have donated $15,000 in the past year, he said.
At the same time, young travel retailers repeatedly tell stories of career counselors telling them not to go into travel.
Jennifer Maki, owner of Divine Destinations, in Cloquet, Minn., now has five agents working under her and is a top producer for brands such as Sandals Resorts and Funjet Vacations. But she recently recalled that when her high school aptitude test predicted that she could be a great travel agent, her high school counselor told her to forget it. It was the mid-'90s, and Expedia was just getting off the ground.
Her experience was typical at the time, but Minnaert said that things have changed.
During those first years of Internet travel selling, consumers could find online vacations similar to those they had once bought from their travel agents. But as online choices mushroomed, choices became overwhelming.
"We see studies about travelers wanting it simpler," Minnaert said. "They want someone to do the legwork for them. It can take hours or even days to plan a trip. They want a best friend who can tell them the best place to go, what excursion to do."
She said that travelers are more savvy and more aware of what can go wrong. A travel agent can be not just a curator of experience but also a helping hand who is just a phone call away when things go awry.
"To see that change is very exciting," she said.