So, You Wanna Be A Travel Agent?

Back in the mid 90s, I almost bought a restaurant. It was a great restaurant — great location, great food, great patrons and great potential. Then a friend of mine who owns several restaurants took me aside and warned me, “You don’t want to get into the restaurant business unless you are born into it!” Probably very good advice. So what did I do? I got into the travel business, instead.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire? Well, yes and no.

Certainly the travel industry has faced some significant challenges since the mid 90s: war, recession, disappearing commissions, SARS and, of course, 9/11. The industry has evolved into a strange dichotomy: It is growing yet shrinking, and it is robust yet stagnant.

That should be a warning to proceed with caution. But then, there are those two great temptations: the perks and the easy work.

Ha! Let’s take those two myths one at a time.

The perks. The thought of free five-star hotel rooms and almost-free airline tickets and cruise passage is enough to lure almost anyone to this industry. If you need more, there are the free familiarization trips (fams) sponsored by tourism councils, resorts, and other travel suppliers.

Wake up! Such perks may have existed many years ago, but today they are about as real as the Tooth Fairy (apologies to my youngest daughter, who still believes).

Agents do get a 75 percent discount on airfare, but the base price for the calculation is the highest unrestricted fare (“Thanks for nothing,” to the Big Six). Similarly, hotels offer discounts to agents, but they are calculated from the “rack rate,” which is the highest published rate.

Cruise lines typically offer an agent discount, too, but it is good only on sailings that have space available, and agents usually sail on a standby basis, so you may wind up vacationing not on the ship but in the port.

Fam trips do exist, and while completely complimentary trips are rare, there are plenty of fams offered to productive agents at very low rates. Last year, for example, I participated in a fam with Sandals Resorts; my total cost was $150, including airfare from Baltimore.

A buck-and-a-half for some sun and fun in Jamaica is most definitely worth it — count me in!

But wait, check the itinerary: that’s a 6 a.m. flight to Jamaica returning home that same evening. Add the hassles of customs, immigration, and the inspection of four resorts (rooms to restaurants, closets to kitchens), and you start having second thoughts.

Sure, I got two free Dirty Banana drinks, and I had 15 free minutes to dip my toes in the Caribbean, but by the time I’d grabbed the bus back to the airport for my 8:30 p.m. flight home, my dream trip was looking a little like drudgery.

Then, to turn the pleasant day trip into a full-fledged nightmare, try explaining to the TSA agents back home that you were only in Jamaica for a few hours, that you have no luggage and nothing to declare, and that you’re traveling on a free ticket. You’ll need to hone your negotiating skills or be ready for that oft-threatened cavity search (and I’m pretty sure we’re not talking dentistry).

On to Myth Number Two.

It’s easy work. My father has always told me that to succeed at anything, you need to work hard at it. Travel is no different. There are many companies out there that would like you to think that you can sell travel by simply placing a link on your Web site or chatting up friends and neighbors.

Au contraire. Travel sales are more complicated than ever. New destinations and hotels are popping up left and right, the airlines have created their own labyrinth of fares and schedules, and people’s expectations have changed.

There are legal considerations, too. The mere act of booking a trip for a client may subject you to liability should anything go wrong. Most professional travel agents these days are bonded and insured, and they spend countless hours getting to know their destinations and their clients. Believe me, nothing about this job comes easy. What’s more, the pay is pretty dismal.

Still, travel is a fun industry. It’s also very addictive. Most travel agents develop a real love for the industry, and they tend to remain connected to it in some way forever. It’s like the Hotel California in the old Eagles song: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

If you are serious about becoming a travel agent, plan to invest both time and energy. Decide if you want to work in a retail environment or at home, and then jump in. Some outstanding resources to get you started include the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN), the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (NACTA), and the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA).

These are all legitimate professional organizations. But there are many other, more questionable outfits promising to speed you on your way to the good life as a travel agent. These so-called “card mills” provide an identification card (sometimes legitimate, sometimes not) that will supposedly open many doors for you (but they usually don’t). They also have an uncanny knack for draining your wallet before you realize what is going on.

“Travel industry card mills are in the business of facilitating deception,” says Kathryn Sudeikis, chief executive officer for the American Society of Travel Agents. “They make money from identification, which is used by people looking to take advantage of travel industry suppliers such as hotels, airlines and cruise lines. Their deceptive practices harm consumers who are tricked into purchasing travel agent identification cards with no tangible economic benefit, except when a travel supplier unwittingly and erroneously grants a discount. Buying the card won’t get you any better deals but it might pull the wool over suppliers’ eyes.”

But before you go worrying about identification cards fam trips, and all those fictitious perks, you’d better make sure you are aware of the job description.

Help wanted. Travel Agent. Must be willing to learn the industry and able to work under pressure. Must possess outstanding customer service skills, a good sense of humor (mostly for dealing with the airlines), and a never-say-die attitude. Position requires long hours and a loving desire to see the world. Salary: not as much as anyone would like. Personal rewards: fantastic. Only serious applicants need apply.

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