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Who Becomes a Travel Agent?

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Salaries are generally a function of sales volume, number of staff managed, and size of the company. Large agencies have more specialization and more positions with management responsibility and thus pay considerably more than the typical travel agency. For example, an executive vice president of a $ 150 million regional company earns over $90,000; a regional vice president earns a base of $85,000; the president and chief executive officer of a large regional agency earns $100,000.

Other examples are as follows: account executive, $30,000 to $35,000; corporate sales manager, $30,000 to $60,000; branch manager, $25,000 to $40,000; general manager of a high volume corporate agency, $60,000; corporate agent with five years of experience, $27,000; regional sales director, $35,000; director of MIS, $50,000 to $60,000; senior meeting planner, $35,000 to $40,000.

Salaries for agents are improving as well. Because of the complexity and sheer quantity of travel products and offerings and the computerized systems necessary for day to day functions, travel agents are just beginning to be appreciated as true professionals. Supply/demand balance has also shifted dramatically.

There are presently about 150,000 travel agents; by the year 2000, forecasts call for between 204,000 and 235,000, according to the Department of Labor, which lists travel agents as one of the fastest growing professions for the decade. In all, industry experts estimate that there will be a need for 24,000 new travel agents each year throughout the decade to cover growth and attrition.

An experienced agent skilled in using an airline computerized reservations system is in enormous demand. Moreover, agency locations had been proliferating at the rate of 5 to 10 percent a year, making new owners desperate to hire agents with two years of ticketing experience to meet the Airlines Reporting Corporation appointment requirements. All of these factors are helping to improve salaries.

Increasingly, travel agencies are attempting to improve compensation through more use of incentive programs, whereby agents earn a base salary plus commission. At Rosenbluth Travel, a Philadelphia based mega agency with an innovative incentive program, agents were able to increase their compensation by 27 percent.

Benefits Vary

Most agencies view travel as their employee's primary benefit, but policies on travel vary markedly. Generally, agencies offer four to six days of familiarization trips depending on experience plus another eight to fourteen vacation days. According to ASTA's 1989 "Agency Salary and Benefits Survey," most agencies provide at least some type of paid familiarization trip annually but some require the agent to pay for all or part. Most agencies provide free or reduced rate travel as well as career related educational benefits.

However, agencies tend to be weak in providing most other benefits. Only one third of all agencies pay the full cost of employee hospitalization and major medical insurance; 40 percent provide no such insurance at all (a legacy from the time when most agents were mature women whose husbands' jobs provided health coverage). Only 10 percent of all agencies offer a retirement plan; a slight majority of agencies provide employee bonuses; nearly half of all agencies provide five or more days of paid sick leave. Less common benefits are dental insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, and maternity/paternity leave.

In a business where experience is becoming increasingly important, a sizable proportion of the work force consists of newcomers, which largely reflects the astronomical growth of the field since 1978. According to a survey by the Travel Education Center (TEC), a Cambridge, MA based travel school affiliated with Thomas Cook/Crimson, some 12.9 percent of agency employees have been working less than one year; only 32 percent have been in the business more than five years. Even owners are new; 16 percent have been in the business less than three years.

While we tend to think of "entry level" workers as people who are just starting out in their careers, the travel agency industry has traditionally been a popular one for people who are changing careers, starting over after raising a family, or retiring from something else. This is convenient, too, because many agencies openly admit that starting salaries would be inadequate for someone who depended solely on the one salary.

"People who are changing careers don't care so much about money," said Zoe Wakefield, an administrator with TEC. They want an atmosphere that they are comfortable with."

"A lot had well paying jobs, but are willing to take less be cause of job satisfaction," added Paula Wagner, president of the Colorado School of Travel, Lakewood, Co.

Sharon Caldwell, for example, was a teacher for seven years and then a nurse before becoming a travel agent. "As a nurse, you deal with patients, families, life and death. It takes a lot of energy on a consistent basis. Travel agency work is relaxing in comparison. As an agent, you're dealing with people and dealing with problems, but these are happy problems. I like travel; I like selling it. I love to travel and I do.

"I had wanted to be an agent for a long time, but stayed away because of the salary," said Caldwell, who had also tried real estate sales and, though a full time travel agent now, continues to work as a nurse every other weekend.

Though more men are coming into the field than before, men still account for only about 15 percent of new agents mainly because of the low pay. 'They can't live with it, even in the short term," said Wagner.

The low pay is the major reason, however, why few who are becoming travel agents today intend to stay on the front line forever. They have ambitions of becoming a manager, an owner, or even an outside salesperson. "Part of the American dream is to be a manager or owner," observed Martin McArthur, placement director for the Southeastern Academy, Kissimmee, FL. "Most come in realizing that salaries are low, but they come in with an eye to the future. They see being a travel agent as 'paying their dues,' a steppingstone. A far higher proportion [than in the past] want to go into management."
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