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February 18, 2015

In 1996, a shaggy-haired Microsoft project manager spoke at a meeting in Toronto of the Hotel Electronic Distribution Network Association. The manager, Erik Blachford, who ultimately became president of Expedia, told attendees that Microsoft was going into the travel business.

Microsoft was not the first entrant into online travel. But it was by far the biggest. Travel agencies were still reeling from commission cuts implemented a year earlier. But agents had lived with low airline commissions before. Massive Microsoft was a whole new kind of threat. This was a one-two punch that would be the death knell for traditional agents, or so conventional wisdom went.

At the time, Lynn Minnaert, now clinical assistant professor at the New York University's (NYU) School of Professional Studies at the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, was working on her postgraduate studies in England.

"We talked a lot about the death of travel agents," she recalled recently.

For nearly 20 years, that myth has lived on. High school and college career counselors routinely tell students that becoming an agent is a dead career. But an increasing number of millennials are not buying that assertion. Recent college graduates whose majors range from liberal arts to the sciences are combining their passion for travel and people with an innate entrepreneurial drive to build their businesses.

Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso and a long-time campaigner for making retail travel a lucrative career, said that never has he seen new entrants hit the million-dollar sales threshold as quickly as he is seeing it today. And the agents he sees hitting those numbers so fast are 20-somethings.

What is it about these new entrants?

"They are tech savvy," Bob Joselyn, president and CEO of Travel Agency Management Solutions, said of the new generation of young agents. "They tend to be entrepreneurial, thinking like professionals in other industries, viewing their client base as their own business, like a lawyer or accountant would."

Costa with gorillas in Rwanda.
Costa with gorillas in Rwanda.
The evangelist

"I realized that I didn't see too many people like me coming into the industry because it was so hard without experience to get in," said Marisa Costa, director of Tzell Travel Group's and Protravel International's Next program. Read More

What's more, they're people-oriented, comfortable working with clients and networking with suppliers, said Marisa Costa, director of Tzell Travel Group's and Protravel International's Next program, which provides intensive training and job placement for new entrants.  

They display initiative and creativity, and are able to look for alternative solutions when they get no for an answer, Costa added.

Most importantly, young agents are reaching out to their peers in the industry. Costa is herself an example of this new outreach. Originally a young luxury agent specializing in Africa, she was instrumental in organizing a recent Travel Future Lab organized by the Young Travel Professionals in New York in early January.


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. 

The psych majors

Magical Mystery Tours co-founder Denise Chaykun in Thailand.
Magical Mystery Tours co-founder Denise Chaykun in Thailand.

Best friends Denise Chaykun and Stephanie Whitesel came up with the concept for their business, Magical Mystery Tours, on something of a lark.

They had planned a trip for a stressed-out lawyer friend who was too busy to plan his own vacation, and when Chaykun suggested they surprise him with the destination, he went for it.

The trip, to San Francisco, where he had never been, went off without a hitch.

"It clicked," Chaykun said. "There was something really magical about it, and once you're an adult, there aren't that many awesome surprises."

And so a business was born.

Aside from a weather report clients get one week out, they don't know where they're going until they get to the airport.

Travel was never on the career radar for either of the two friends, both of whom had majored in psychology and were next-door neighbors at Bucknell University.

"We were of the generation that thought, 'Why would you use a travel agent? You can do it yourself!'" Chaykun said.

But they recognized a sweet spot in the market when others asked them to plan a surprise vacation for them.

Magical Mystery Tours co-founder Stephanie Whitesel in Japan.
Magical Mystery Tours co-founder Stephanie Whitesel in Japan.

"We started really small and said, 'Hey, what's there to lose?'" Chaykun recalled. They did "tons of research" and started booking travel for friends and family.

Originally, about 80% of their business was standard travel, but in the wake of two articles about the company in O, the Oprah Magazine, about 80% of their business is now mystery tours. Business has essentially doubled every year since the two founded the company five years ago.

Chaykun and Whitesel have brought in additional travel planners with travel experiences that complement their own, enabling them to book mystery tours all over the world: Thailand, Australia, all over South America, Central America, Europe and the U.S. The main limitation is that they cannot offer mystery trips to destinations requiring visas.

"We can't surprise you with a visa," Chaykun said.

Their clients can be honeymooners or multigenerational families. Weekends tend to be popular, but they do trips for as long as two weeks.

There's a certain self-selection among their clients, since it's a special kind of person who is willing to head off on a trip to parts unknown.

The pair also still do standard trips.

"If your dream has been to go to Ireland, then we'll plan your trip to Ireland," Chaykun said. The company does get repeat business, and some clients have gone on multiple mystery trips. Still others come back to Magical Mystery Tours with a destination in mind.

"There's nothing wrong with booking your own travel; lots of people are wonderful at it," Chaykun said. "But it's a lot of work, and there are a ton of options out there, and this is something we do every day."

The liberal arts major

Sarah Bush was a classic liberal arts major. She graduated in 2012 from Kenyon College, where she had created her own curriculum: American studies, history and sociology, with a concentration in environmental studies. She also studied Italian and did an intensive summer language program in Perugia. She spent a junior year semester abroad in Costa Rica, studying sustainable development.

Sarah Bush of Bali Hai’i Dreams with dancers in Fiji.
Sarah Bush of Bali Hai’i Dreams with dancers in Fiji.

When it came to a career, she had a lot of ideas, including becoming a history teacher or working in a national park because she could combine history and environmentalism. But Diana Hechler, owner of D Tours and a parent of one of her classmates at Kenyon, offered her another option.

"I talked to [Hechler] a lot about her job," Bush recalled recently, "and thought it was so cool to be able to work with people and consult with them and of course be able to travel, which is amazing."

But that wasn't the only attraction.

"The other thing was the whole entrepreneurial aspect, having your business and growing your business," said Bush, who had participated in Kenyon's Innovation Greenhouse, an entrepreneurial think tank.

Hechler introduced her to the many facets of the travel business and Bush flirted with a variety of ideas, including retail, hotel and supplier.

But Hechler also knew that Bush had talked to one potential employer about working on honeymoons.

"A little light bulb went off in my head," she said. "Honeymoons are something everybody takes." Add one millennial with scores of Facebook friends who already considered her a travel expert and Hechler realized she could have a business at the "nexus of converging social trends." 

Bush was already an experienced traveler, and Hechler had seen how her peers turned to her for travel advice. "That is such a big part of wanting to be in this business, to like the idea of having this kind of knowledge and sharing and being of use to other people," she said. "I had the same ethos."

Hechler also found Bush's liberal arts background to be strong plus: "She is very broadly educated, so she knows a lot about a lot of different things."

Besides that, Bush was a good writer, well spoken and well versed in other cultures. Most important, she was smart, Hechler said, and "being smart was really helpful."

Hechler hired Bush as an assistant, but Bush also worked as an independent contractor. They began D Tours' honeymoon business, and Bush did well, immediately getting repeat and referral business. Bush has subsequently set up her own brand, Bali Hai'i Dreams, focusing on the South Pacific.

Bush's business is doubling every year. And she loves her career choice.

"You don't get bored," she said. "Every day is different."

If she's not booking travel, she might be creating her social media campaigns. Her creative side is fulfilled by marketing efforts such making Christmas tree decorations with images of retro travel posters of destinations to which she has sent clients. She has also made mock passports with stamps of the countries to which she has booked clients. She sends out a printed quarterly newsletter, which she also posts on her website.

"There are so many aspects to this job and so many ways you can use your brain and focus your energy," Bush said. But she also likes the fact that she is working with people.

"You can have been in the office at a computer all day long, but it comes down to connecting with people and getting them to like you and trust you," she said.

The history major

Cheyenne Teters, now a travel adviser with Sanders Travel Center in Fort Worth, Texas, was a European history major at Tarleton State University. But while she loved history, Teters didn't want to do what everyone expected her to do: teach the subject.

"I wanted to travel the world," she said.

Teters got no encouragement from either professional or personal career counselors: "They said, 'Why would you want to be a travel agent? It's a dying industry.'"

Cheyenne Teters of Sanders Travel Center with Norwegian Jewel crew members.
Cheyenne Teters of Sanders Travel Center with Norwegian Jewel crew members.

But she learned of Sanders' Design Academy, a month of intensive training in using the Sabre GDS, trip planning and how to work with clients, followed by ongoing training once a month.

Teters, who graduated from college in December 2012, enrolled in the Design Academy in September 2013 and went to work for the agency in October. Today, she's traveling and building her own book of business.

She's been to Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, the Riviera Maya, New York City and Las Vegas. Next on her list: anywhere in South America or Europe.

Much of her business is honeymoons, and many are from contacts she has generated by networking with her contemporaries.

"I say, 'I'm a travel agent,' and they say, 'I'm going on a honeymoon,'" she said. Then they swap cards. She's also planning honeymoons for friends and some walk-ins at the Sanders Travel storefront, where she is an employee. She also works as an independent contractor.

"I'm definitely getting more clients," Teter said, adding that working out of Sanders' office gives her the benefit of learning from veteran agents and meeting vendors face to face.

The agency, in turn, benefits not just from her work as an agent but because she can also help with social media. She is currently helping Sanders test the Axus Travel App, a B2C program that agents can use to build an itinerary and share with clients on their mobile phones.

"I really love it," Teters said.

She described her history major as an asset because of the knowledge of other countries and cultures that it gave her.

Sarah Zamzow, director of operations and group sales for Sanders, who also is an instructor for the education program, agreed.

"Certainly the sense of professionalism you get in college is very valuable," she said, adding that Teters' knowledge of Greek and Roman history is also a plus.

In addition, she called Teters' tech savvy a "huge asset."

Zamzow, too, is a product of the Design Academy. She was a sociology major at Texas Christian University but had traveled in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, Europe and South America, and she had done a three-week study-abroad program in Japan.

"Right out of college, I knew I wanted to work in travel, and I sent my resume to everyone under the sun," Teters recalled, "And Sanders invited me to the class."

That was 2009.

"Now I've been to every continent except Antarctica," she said. "And I'm going there in January 2016.

The film major

Armed with a bachelor's degree in film production from Emerson College in Boston and a master's degree in screenwriting from NYU, Patricia Serrano headed west to L.A. and went to work for a film producer.

She hated it.

So, she quit, and she picked up on a vision she'd had, but abandoned, as an undergraduate. The concept was, which she had originally envisioned as an online travel show featuring the off-the-beaten-path kinds of travel she loves. She'd bought the URL in 2007, but that was about as far as she got.

Then, in 2011, she traveled with filmmaker Brandon Li to Mexico, where she made a new set of travel videos for FreshTraveler and reignited her passion. That was just the beginning.

Winning a video contest launched her blogging career. Serrano and her college roommate and best friend, Anna Haas, packed up a Honda CRV (Honda sponsored the trip) with camera equipment, and for a month they filmed, blogged and Instagrammed their way across America. Their work appeared on Rand McNally & USA Today's Best of the Road website and a Travel Channel crew filmed their adventures.

"We didn't sleep for a month," she said.

Serrano, who grew up in Thailand in the beachfront hotel her father managed, monetized her blog in a variety of ways. She used it as a portfolio to land work doing videos, copywriting and blogging for several travel companies and destinations, mostly with marketing departments. Clients included the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the Mexico Tourism Board, Mauva Air Cruise and others. She also got speaking engagements, including talking about blogging for the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Her style is counterintuitive. She starts a video about Nicaragua by telling viewers not to visit Nicaragua. She wants to it to stay empty so she can enjoy it more.

Her blog attracted loyal followers. And they started asking for help in planning their trips. But while she was giving advice about travel, she was unable to book a trip. As for that part, she wasn't certain where to start.

Then she met Marisa Costa, founder and director of Next, the training and job-placement program recently introduced by Protravel International and Tzell Travel Group, both part of the Travel Leaders Group. Serrano enrolled in Next, graduated on Halloween and started selling travel on Nov. 1.

Her main takeaway from the Next program, she said, was confidence.

Before Next and her association with Protravel as an independent contractor, she had been totally on her own. But she didn't have a business model, and as a film student, she said she had no idea where to begin.

"I was allergic to accounting," Serrano said, laughing. "I never learned to use a spreadsheet. I was like, 'Oh my God! This is overwhelming.'"

Planning a trip doesn't intimidate her because she sees it as putting a variety of moving parts together into something coherent, which is part of her daily life as a filmmaker.

She said she focuses on quality, not quantity. She wants not just to connect with her readers but to talk with them on the phone and help them plan their trips.

"I love the whole consultative process," Serrano said.

Meanwhile, she professes belief in the future of retail travel.

"You hear about travel agents as a career dying off," she said. "When I entered Protravel, I realized it was not dead. People were making not just a mediocre living but a really good living."

The biology major

Joshua Kittle's grandfather was his role model, so Kittle planned to be a doctor as his grandfather had been, going so far as to follow in his footsteps by attending Bellarmine University.

Math and science had always come easily to him, so a biology major was a natural fit.

Travel Options’ Joshua Kittle in Costa Rica.
Travel Options’ Joshua Kittle in Costa Rica.

But by his junior year, biology didn't move him as it once had. Travel, however, which he had always loved because of the new perspective on the world and life that it delivers, did intrigue him. And it also fit his core goal.

"I always wanted to have a job that would help others one way or another, whether it was practicing medicine or helping people travel better," he said.

So he pitched his aunt, Norma Mouser, owner of Travel Options in Louisville, Ky., about going to work for her, and in 2011 went into retail travel.

"There is no such thing as an ordinary day," he said. Whether it's planning a trip -- sustainable travel is one of his specialties -- or dealing with airline cancellations and weather disruptions, he's always engaged.

Kittle, whose affinity for math and science helps with office operations, does about 80% leisure and 20% corporate. Much of the corporate consists of booking teachers to conferences about early childhood learning. As a 20-something, honeymoons are a logical specialty for him, especially with many of his friends now getting married.

But so is sustainable travel. He's a big fan of G Adventures because of its focus on working closely with local providers, be it Sherpas, idiosyncratic hotels and restaurants run by locals or trips to a coffee plantation to learn the economics of a destination. A fitness enthusiast, he gravitates toward adventure travel.

But no matter what type of trip he's planning, he always looks for something unique for all of his clients, something to "wow them."

"Then they feel like they've gotten the inside scoop, and that is why you use a travel agent," he said, adding that having a well-planned trip is another reason for using an agent.

He travels a fair amount himself, all over the Caribbean, the U.S. and parts of Central America. He is going to Iceland in June.

Most of his colleagues at Travel Options are a few decades older than he is, though he said that joining ASTA's Young Professionals Society early on opened up a new world of travel for him.

"I kind of got stuck thinking that [his Travel Options colleagues] is the type of people in this industry, and it's not true at all," he said. The Young Professionals Society has offered a new group of industry peers who are friends as well as competitors.

He works at recruiting new members.

Acknowledging that "it can be tough getting going in this business," he said he enjoys helping others get going in fulfilling career.