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Travel Agents and Travel Agencies

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While the travel agent primarily services a client, the agent also must be a salesperson; the sales inventory is represented by the brochures on the rack. "Eighty percent of the people who come in here already know what they want," commented Patxot. "You are just servicing them. But the rest, you do sell." Agents have to learn various techniques of discerning the client's true wants and needs in order to narrow down what part of the world and what type of trip to recommend. '1 show the client the world; he buys one piece of it," he said.

There is increasing emphasis on sales techniques, particularly on how to "close" a sale (get the customer to commit to the trip and put down a deposit) because there is so much shopping around by consumers. Agents are also frequently encouraged by management to "sell up" to higher priced programs or to push "preferred" suppliers because they pay higher commissions to the agency. Agents also act as salespeople by drawing new clients to an agency, but frequently agencies employ outside salespeople who work solely on commission to perform this function.

Not too long ago, agents knew the airlines and fares to popular destinations by heart because there were relatively few airlines and rates changed at specified times after being approved by the government. But with deregulation, the airlines serving an airport can change overnight, and there are literally tens of thousands of new fares daily. Sheer growth of the industry on the one hand, and deregulation on the other, have made it impossible for any agent to keep track of all the fast changing products, prices, and rules necessary to properly advise clients and book their travel. Increasingly, the travel agent functions as an information provider, drawing to some extent on personal familiarity and experience with places, facilities, and companies, but relying increasingly on powerful computers, weighty references, and even video brochures.



Traveling Is Not So Free

Most people who become travel agents do so mainly because they expect to travel extensively for free. "You don't travel that much, and you don't make any money at all," quipped one 20 year veteran.

Familiarization trips, or "fams" as they are called, which agents take in order to get to know destinations and facilities, are only occasionally free. Usually, they cost the agents something. A working agent is generally entitled to reduced rate travel on many airlines, but airlines are becoming more restrictive on the passes. The IRS now is looking to tax the trips as fringe benefits. Also, employers establish policy on whether fams are to be taken as vacation time and whether the agent pays for the trip out of his or her own pocket. Moreover, time on these trips is generally taken up with seminars and hotel inspections, leaving little free time.

Still, it is true that most travel agents travel considerably more than the average person. "Being a travel agent gives me the opportunity to live a lifestyle I couldn't otherwise afford," said Richard Dixon, owner/manager of The Travel Spot, Cranford, NJ. "I've been around the world six times. There's no place I haven't been."

Salaries Are Improving

Travel agencies have traditionally been very low paying. The glamour attached to travel and the opportunity to travel at reduced cost were considered benefits. The fact that the job is frequently a second income in a household (since most agents were women returning to work after raising their families), and the fact that not much educational or prior work experience is required also tended to keep wages down. While it is possible to make a fairly good income (even six figures for the most ambitious commissioned sales agents with an elite following or for a vice president of a large, multi branch agency), salaries are about 20 to 40 percent lower than in comparable positions in other industries.

According to a 1989 "Salary & Benefits Survey" by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), an Alexandria, VA based trade association, the average income for full time inside sales agents is $15,610. Agents' earnings start at $11,000 for the entry level sales agent; with one to two years, the agent earns $13,095; three to five years, $16,195; six to ten years, $19,035; and ten or more years, $21,655.

The average income for a full time corporate agent is $16,870 more than $2,000 over what a leisure agent earns.

Salaries are linked to agency volume: The average income earned by full time inside sales agents in firms doing less than $ 1 million is $13,495, compared with more than $17,500 for agents employed in travel agencies doing more than $5 million in volume.

The average income for agency managers, according to the 1989 ASTA survey, is $22,270. Those with less than one year of experience earn $17,370; with one to two years of experience, they earn $18,510; three to five years, $20,595; six to ten years, $22,735, and more than ten years, $26,015. Again, agencies with a business travel orientation pay managers more an average of $24,300, or 15 percent more than leisure agencies. Agency sales volume is also a factor: Managers of agencies doing less than $ 1 million earn an average of $18,200, or 31 percent less than managers of agencies doing more than $5 million in sales, who earn an average of $26,500. Most managers (72.1 percent) are compensated by salary only, but nearly one fourth receive both salary and commission. About one third of the agency sales force is on some sort of commission structure either exclusively (22 percent) or partly.

However, there is a category of outside sales agents (as distinguished from inside sales agents, who tend to work on salary), who almost always work exclusively on commission, which generally is a percentage of the net commission earned on the business they bring in. Most outside sales agents who do all their own work (sales as well as ticketing and documentation) earn 41 to 50 percent of the net commission; outside sales agents who rely on assistance from agency staff typically make 21 to 40 percent of the commission (net commission is about 10 percent of the sale). A commissioned sales agent may make only $2,500 in the first year, but an agent with many years of experience can earn $35,000, $50,000, and even more. How much a commissioned agent makes depends largely upon the type of clients that the agent brings in corporate clients, independent leisure clients, or groups.
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