Salary key to staff retention woes

SteveJonesNot for the first time, and one might reasonably suspect not the last, concerns have been raised over the travel industry’s apparent inability to attract new, and retain existing staff. It is, said Traveller Choice chief executive Christian Hunter, an “on-going struggle”.

Speaking at his network’s annual conference on the Gold Coast, Hunter suggested a need to “revitalise the perception” of travel as a career to attract and retain, “quality individuals into the travel agent community”.

But what as an industry can we actively do to make the job of a travel agent that much more appealing? Well I thought about this and had a moment of clarity. And it’s this: Why don’t companies try paying a half decent salary?For all the naval gazing and hand wringing that accompanies this perennial debate, the answer – at least part of the answer for it’s not the sole miracle-remedy – seems to get overlooked.

Travel agents, frankly, are poorly remunerated. Yet inexplicably no-one ever addresses wages, or lack of them, as an underlying reason for the brain drain. We’re talking about attracting – and retaining – millennials to our industry, and they are a confident, demanding and expectant generation who just will not accept a meager pay packet.

Yes, there are some retailers who are terrifically successful and make a very tidy living. But they are in the minority. The majority of travel agents – both front line consultants and shop owners – are not exactly living the high life.

I have often heard the argument that travelling is a huge perk of the job and should be used to entice new starters. After all, what can be better than jetting off to foreign climes at someone else’s expense? Sure, it sounds appealing, heck, it is appealing. But when you reach the stage in life of mortgage repayments, bills and a family, a three night trip to Bali loses its edge.

Of course, travel is an industry that works on wafer thin margins, so the ability to pay reasonable salaries is restricted. But we should stop kidding ourselves than low pay it not a major reason for this reluctance to embrace travel retailing as a career.

Another drawback is that being a travel agent is simply not an in-vogue profession, and not regarded as a pathway to success. How many of today’s leaders in travel began life as a travel agent? I stand to be corrected but not many is my guess.

I did a straw poll of my friends’ kids aged between 15 and 19, and all regarded the concept of a travel agent as somehow outdated. There were about a dozen in total, so hardly a scientific survey, but they were all adamant they will never feel the need to use a travel agent, let alone work in one.

This is a generation that has known nothing but online transactions, a generation that communicates without picking up the phone, and a generation that finds the prospect of someone else booking your travel as vaguely absurd.

Which brings to my final point. AFTA chief Jayson Westbury pointed the finger at the media for the shortage of new travel agents. Now, the media can hardly lay claim to be bastion of morality and ethics – that would be stretching credibility to breaking point – but to suggest it is somehow responsible for this lack of emerging talent is off the mark.

Westbury suggested that newspaper stories reporting the demise of traditional travel retailers have peddled a myth that agents are dead. I don’t buy that. It is not the media’s job to promote bricks and mortar agents, that’s AFTA’s responsibility and it’s doing a pretty decent job of that right now. But agents are under pressure – surely no one would contradict that – and reporting that is entirely fair and accurate.