The discerning differences between professional travel advisors and part-time hobbyists is an age-old subject and one that deserves to be reexamined, particularly in the age of the coronavirus.
"There seems to be quite a divide, which appears to me to be between agents who do travel part time and agents who do travel as their full time careers," said James Berglie of Be All Inclusive. "The part-time crowd seems to not have an understanding that tour operators and hotels adopt policies to be sustainable, as they are businesses as well, and need to stay in business. The full-time crowd seems to be more focused on solutions that work for everyone."
He added, "It'll be very interesting to see how things pan out with the part-time crowd as we go through this difficult time. But to that regard, one thing I hope to see come out of this is a bigger barrier to entry into the industry."
For his part, Richard Turen of Churchill & Turen believes the pandemic will "make steep inroads in reducing the number of hobbyists."
Not all part-timers, however, are hobbyists. "Some agents I know who are in semi-retirement work only part-time but have the experience needed in situations we are encountering today and in the past during 9/11," said Claire Schoeder of Elevations Travel. "Understanding what can and cannot be done is important, and that is learned from experience and training."
Hobbyists, however, are an entirely different story. "I have encountered an 'agent' who did not know what a visa was," Schoeder said. "She asked why [the client] could not use AMEX or MasterCard. Her host agency only charges a fee and provides some information, but very little formal training. Yet she is an agent."
Advisors agreed that training and education are part-and-parcel to the success of anyone who is serious about becoming a professional agent.
"I spent 20 years working for luxury hotel chains in jobs ranging from operations to global sales roles that included working closely with top travel advisors and agency owners," said Laura Madrid of Resort to Laura Madrid. "When I decided to become a travel advisor 10 years ago and joined Travel Experts as an independent contractor, [it] was a very intuitive and natural progression," which provided her with the tools necessary to be successful.
For Trish Gastineau of Simply Customized Travel, a passion for travel - being part of the military she had traveled most of her life - was the driving force for her joining the industry in the 1990s. "I thought it would be easy," said Gastineau, a Travel Experts agent. She enrolled in a three-month travel school program and was shocked at what she didn't know.
Gastineau then joined a cruise-only agency, and again was surprised at how much she had yet to learn.
"It scares for the traveling public when [they are] booking with someone who's a hobbyist in it for the perks," she said. "It can be dangerous to the [clients] they are 'helping,' especially when things don't go as planned. We're not only dealing with people's money but leisure time, which is very valuable because they only have a finite amount of it."
Over the years, Becky Lukovic of Bella Travel Planning, a Travel Experts agency, has seen new agents enter the industry "simply to travel to see the world for a couple of years at a deep discount, while not growing their actual book of business."
Many leave the industry after two or three years in business, she said. "Agencies should consider implementing mentorship programs to ensure the success of their new advisors and to educate them on industry etiquette, expectations of sales from suppliers when attending educational events and best practices."
In Schoeder's view, "the bar for obtaining an IATAN card should be raised - including the dollar amount of commission required annually and an increase in the number of hours worked from 20 per week to 25 or 30."
Furthermore, the "amount made should be verified by producing a 1099 in order to obtain and then renew the card," she said, adding that she was once on a fam trip with an undertaker whose mother owned an agency and listed him as an agent.
"Producing a W2 or 1099 would have made sure an actual agent was on the trip and not someone taking a free trip," Schoeder said. "Making this more difficult to obtain will cut down on many so-called agents selling only to themselves and family members."
Other advisors view hobbyists/part-timers through a different lens.
"You have to start somewhere," said Nowicki of Sunset Travel & Cruise. "I don't see an issue with someone trying their hand at the travel industry as long as they are doing it honestly and not biting off more than they can chew at the risk of their client's time and money."
Or, as Ben Gritzewsky of FROSCH put it: "The industry and marketplace provide ample opportunity and enough natural challenges to filter the hobbyists from the pros. Vendors and suppliers should determine that whom they do business with on the wholesale level is legitimate. Consumers can easily gauge the standard of service they desire, and they get what they pay for, as usual."
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