Despite the lingering stereotype of a slowly dying sector, a
recent ASTA study and interviews with agents across the country revealed that
travel agencies are hitting new highs in employment and compensation.
ASTA’s 2014 Labor & Compensation Report found that 74%
of the Society’s members, accounting for about 24% of all U.S. agencies, had at
least one employee or independent contractor, up from 72% in 2011. ASTA’s
survey found that compensation for experienced agents, including benefits, had
risen 17% in the past five years, from an average of $29,000 in 2009 to $34,000
in 2014, topping out at $105,000.
Some frontline agents earn more; one agency interviewed for
this article said one of its agents made as much as $120,000 a year.
Compensation for managers with sales responsibilities averages $46,500, maxing
out at $175,000, ASTA found. The Society said that its members, which include
online agencies such as Expedia, account for 84% of travel agency sales in the
Agencies are getting increasingly creative about where they
find agents and how they pay them, testing, rejecting and tweaking the
candidate search and compensation process in order to adapt to a constantly
changing employment marketplace.
For the most part, agencies are hiring for three reasons: to
get help handling business coming in the door; to grow their businesses by
hiring agents who generate repeat and referral business; and to replace agents
While most owners and managers said they liked the idea of
hiring experienced agents, many find they are limited to new entrants.
Conversely, some make zero retail travel experience a job requirement.
Interviews with agency leaders revealed that the new hires
come from all age groups, from millennials to empty-nesters. Among new entrants
of whatever age, two common denominators are a love of travel and comfort with
The search process is idiosyncratic, with smaller agencies
tending to search on an as-needed basis and larger agencies running ongoing
recruitment efforts. Frequent sources for new agents are recommendations from
current agents, customers who want to join the business and online ads.
‘I can’t afford mediocrity’
Whatever the process, quality hires are key.
“I can’t afford mediocrity,” said Philip Banks, president of
Legacy Travel, an agency in Plano, Texas.
He was voicing a common theme.
To make sure they find good people, even among those who
lack experience, agency heads said they look for certain traits in their hires.
Chris Minoletti, operations manager of Bay World Travel in
Half Moon Bay, Calif., said he’s been successful finding people with sales and
customer service experience, then training them to sell travel. One of these
new entrants started in January 2014 and is a “rock star” who ramped up fast,
swiftly becoming adept at selling vacations costing $10,000 to $20,000.
Minoletti said that what really stood out was the speed with which this agent
mastered the details of complex travel planning as well as her ability to sell
beyond her own pocketbook.
Banks has made zero industry experience a prerequisite for
“I’m looking for fun personalities and being likable,” he
said. Because his agency focuses on vacation travel, its agents don’t need to
know how to use a GDS, he said, adding that makes it “easier to get people
trained and up and running quickly.”
His main source of new hires, he said, is the agency’s
website, which uses video and a description of the company’s training and
compensation plan to paint an attractive picture of Legacy’s work style. Even
interviews are done online, using a downloadable interview app.
Susie Leib, owner of Ambassador Travel in Oshkosh, Wis.,
finds herself hiring new entrants, as well.
“My hires come from people who are interested and have a
passion for travel and customer service,” she said. “We bring them on from the
Larger agencies like Montrose Travel in Montrose, Calif.,
Unlike Legacy, Montrose — No. 41 on the 2014 Travel Weekly
Power List — looks for experienced agents. But because it is competing in a
tight job market, it offers job security, “great compensation plans” and
benefits to attract talent, said Andi McClure-Mysza, co-president of the agency
and president of Montrose’s host agency, MTravel.
McClure-Mysza said Montrose does take new entrants for the
call center, which handles fairly simple air, car and hotel bookings for
It also cultivates younger employees; 22% of Montrose staff
are under the age of 40, and 29% of those hired in the last two years are
younger than 30. New entrants can start in support roles, then move into sales
and other areas. The agency has more than 200 employees.
Salaries, benefits on the rise
As demand rises, so does compensation for both salaries and
incentives. The ASTA study found that roughly three- quarters of agencies it
surveyed pay a straight salary, but many agency heads who were interviewed used
some type of incentive-based pay, and a few have introduced it in just the past
Robert Joselyn, president and CEO of Travel Agency
Management Systems, the agency benchmarking and best-practices group, said he
has been seeing a shift toward incentive-based pay for quite some time.
Agencies use incentives in a variety of ways, he said. Some do a combination of
base pay with incentives added; others do straight commission.
Legacy Travel’s Banks does straight commission, but he bases
pay on the average of the last 12 months of sales to even out the peaks and
valleys of the Texas vacation travel seasons. He laid out the economics of
agency pay on the agency website, asserting that the typical vacation Legacy
Travel sells generates $250 in commission and the agent share is 35%; an agent
who averages seven sales a week would get a gross monthly paycheck of $2,450.
But many of his agents make much more than that, with their
pay going up as they get better at doing their job. Like many agencies, he also
offers a 401(k) and health insurance. On top of that, however, he pays for
employees’ membership in Massage Envy, which means agents get one free massage
per month and discounts on additional massages.
Interviews revealed that many agents see their pay rise when
agencies move to incentive-based compensation. Leib said that when she switched
to incentivized pay a little more than two years ago, her top agent doubled her
Dave Lovick, co-owner of seven Travel Leaders locations in
Minnesota and Wisconsin, said his agencies’ shift to commission-based pay two
years ago has also increased his agents’ earnings.
Agencies that don’t use incentive-based pay are increasing
the salaries they pay. For example, Minoletti pays his agents straight salaries
but has increased them by about 30% in the past five years. The agency is
paying more because it is asking its agents for more, and in return, Minoletti
said, they are producing. He has floated the idea of incentive-based pay, but
so far the staff prefers a guaranteed salary rather than the stress of making
Largay Travel in Waterbury, Conn., uses an incentive plan
that awards bonuses based on sales performance. It also has a profit-sharing
program. As a result, Largay advisers are earning more, said the company’s
president, Amanda Klimak.
Although some owners are concerned about where the industry
will find talent in the future, several also pointed to travel’s widespread
Like many agents interviewed for this report, Leib said that
people tell her several times a week, “You have the best job in the world,” or
“I’d love to do what you do.”
McClure-Mysza said Montrose gets many applications from
Among agency owners interviewed for this report, Jay
Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, Calif., was
the most bullish. He said he had never had any trouble finding good talent, and
he’s not concerned about finding it in the future.
“If anything, it seems as though the talent pool is getting
even better,” he said. “You should see some of the resumes that come into my
office from applicants around the world.”