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Getting into the Travel Agency Business

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One reason why more people are coming into travel agency work is that "travel agent" is becoming a more recognized and highly visible profession. Kate, on the TV show "Kate and Allie," was a travel agent, and, in a revival of the "Gidget" sitcom, the grown up Gidget was a travel agent.

"Young people are thinking about becoming a travel agent," said Doris Davidoff, vice president of Belair Travel, Bowie, MD. "Fifteen years ago, the average kid coming out of high school or college hadn't even heard of a travel agent. It wasn't even listed in the Labor Department's list of careers. People didn't think of it until after they had traveled, and then tended to stay home until their kids were grown. They could take a 'fluff' thing that wasn't threatening to their husband's professional role. But it was exciting, glamorous. For these women, it didn't matter how much money they made."

Joanna Bartolotta, a corporate agent on Long Island, NY, started out as a travel agent just out of high school. "My mother wanted me to be a stewardess, but I decided to be a travel agent when I was in the tenth grade. I just love hearing about different places; I love sending people away-it makes them happy. But it's nerve racking. It takes a lot out of you; people are constantly changing their mind, and businessmen are rough they actually want you to build them a plane sometimes."

Meanwhile, the traditional source of new travel agents mature women returning to work after they have reared their children is drying up since many fewer women are staying home with their children. They are building careers and staying in them through their childbearing and childrearing years.

Today, the fact that most travel agents are women in their childbearing years raises a new problem for agencies how to keep their trained professionals once these women have babies.

Consequently, travel agencies are trying to improve the position of travel agent and make it more of a career by offering more specialties, more steps on the career ladder, and better pay and benefits. Many, in order to keep valued employees, are allowing new mothers to work from home via computer or are offering flexible and reduced work schedules. A few, like VTS Travel, Montvale, NJ, have even opened an on site day care center.

"We are limited in our growth because of the difficulty in hiring people," noted MarylesCasto, chairman of Casto Travel, Inc., a five office group headquartered in Palo Alto, CA. At Casto's agency, the work and family problem is acute: Out of 140 employees, 80 percent are women and 60 percent of those are in childbearing years. "We have four to five pregnancies a year, and more and more women are not coming back after having their babies," she said.

Casto offers many options to retain and attract employees such as a three month maternity leave with an option to extend, liberal part time and flex time options, and job sharing. Casto is also looking into the possibility of subsidizing the cost of child care and allowing new mothers to work from home via computer.

Getting In

Getting into the travel agency business is tough. One of the ironies of the industry is that entry level jobs are so scarce when the industry is expanding so dramatically.

In the past, the travel agency industry afforded enormous opportunity at the entry level. The industry's version of an apprenticeship was a clerk working for minimum wage but able to look over a more experienced shoulder and ultimately move into a consultant's spot. Many agents started while they were high school students working part time and summers.

Today, the situation has completely reversed. Computers have virtually eliminated the need for clerks while vastly increasing the complexity and technical knowledge required to do even the most basic functions. The incredibly fast pace of work means that there is no time to train, and the very low profit margins make training a costly exercise. What is more, many managers fear entrusting their clients to a novice when the tiniest missed detail can cost the agency a client, or worse, a lawsuit.

Drawn by the glamour and opportunity to travel, many are so desperate to get in that they are willing to work for no pay; they just want the chance to gain the necessary experience for a paying job. Some agencies have taken advantage of this situation, hiring people on a commission basis.

One young woman who now owns her own agency recalled her experience of getting into the travel agency business with bitterness. She enrolled in a travel school operated by a prominent agency but realized that "no one would give me a job when I had no experience." She found a Long Island agency that offered to pay her commission on sales she brought in. She worked Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m. After four months, she had earned $4.52 in commission "on a one way ticket to Florida for my boyfriend. I was a gofer." She was eventually "promoted" and shown how to write tickets and invoices. Finally, she landed a group account.

"Exploited? I felt then I was getting what I wanted training and experience," she declared.

Another young woman also volunteered to work for nothing for six months in order to gain the requisite experience. "I felt cheated; there was no time to train me as they said."

Moreover, many agency owners or managers do not recognize free work as valid experience. Still, many of these work in exchange for training programs can lead to jobs, and some managers even insist on "growing their own" through an established in house training program.

Many agency managers have had to abandon their own training programs because the work environment simply does not allow the luxury. They are being forced out of desperation to draw upon the graduates of vocational and academic travel training programs despite lingering skepticism that such programs do not adequately prepare people.

"I've never yet met a graduate of any travel school who was ready to be a travel agent right after graduation," said the owner of a North Kansas City, MO, agency, who nonetheless hired two.

Indeed, agencies are becoming much more accustomed to going to the placement offices of schools to hire new graduates.

So, while you should not confuse a diploma with a ticket into an agency job, some kind of schooling is becoming more and more necessary to break into the field. Even the most skeptical agency managers appreciate the value of the schools for screening out those individuals who are interested in travel agency work only for the fun and fams. Graduates of such programs are regarded as more serious, more committed, and more realistic about what the business is all about. This is important because agencies make a great investment when they take on a novice.

Fewer than 20 schools were dedicated to travel agency training a decade ago. The numbers have since swelled to more than 1,200.
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