Setting up and running a successful – and profitable – travel agency is more challenging these days than it has been in the past. The slump in the economy, competition from on-line booking sites and the occasional threat of terrorism has forced many travel agencies to downsize or close altogether. Most major airlines have heavily reduced, or eliminated altogether their commission to agencies, which at one time was a huge source of agency revenue. Companies too, have felt the economic pinch and cut back on expense account travel for their employees. Despite all this, the travel industry is still 500 billion dollar a year heavy, and is the 2nd biggest employer in the United States.
For you to officially call yourself a travel agent and be able to offer travel services there are certain minimum qualifications that must be met. To some extent, the requirements vary from state to state, but generally you must have a high school diploma or the equivalent qualifications. Computer skills are a must of course, as is good telephone manner and the ability to communicate with customers effectively. Ideally you would like your customers to return to you and recommend your services to other people. Many schools and colleges offer travel classes which vary greatly in what they offer, as well as the cost. It is also useful to have a background in basic accounting or business management.
And of course, a love of travel is a must – or better still – travel experience. You must have some knowledge of such diverse subjects as weather, currency exchange, passport and visa requirements, baggage and customs regulations. And most importantly, to be able to provide ticketing for your clients, you need to be licensed by the American Society of Travel Agents – this institution is also a good place to start if you intend to pursue a travel career.
Many travel agents have been forced to offer specialized travel services. You may want to specialize in airfare only, complete tour packages, or a particular area of the world such as Europe or the Caribbean. Some smaller agencies specialize even further, for example literary themed tours or gourmet tours. The cruise market is a huge part of many agencies’ bookings and is set to grow even more; many cruise passengers are repeat cruisers. Business and corporate travel is a profitable specialized market too. More and more people can book their airfare, hotel and cruise on line with ease, and to thrive as a travel agent you must be able to offer the personal touch. Many people use travel agents when they are planning a particularly complicated or expensive vacation, or a once in a lifetime travel experience. Honeymooners generally still trust their travel plans to a reliable travel agent.
Like all business ventures, you will need the help of an accountant to draw up a business plan if you need a loan to get your agency started. Dealing mostly with financial issues, this will include the capital you need to start your business, potential earnings, overheads, number of employees, etc. You may need the help of a realtor if you tend to lease office space for your venture. It is possible to work from home fairly easily as a travel agent; the basic tools of the profession are a phone and a computer. A second phone line is a bonus when working from home so you can be on-line and on the phone at the same time. You may need a business license, and planning permission to operate a small business from your home. Marketing your agency is essential too – you will need to have a well designed and user-friendly website.
Because of the general depressed state of the travel industry in recent years many people choose to work independently, but for one of the big agencies. The agency you work for is known as a ‘host agency’ and you work basically for yourself, but use their facilities – office space, fax and copier machines – and client lists. Depending on the arrangement, you would either pay them ‘rent’ or a commission for every sale you make on your own. It’s a lot less risky than just going completely solo. An estimated 13% of all US based travel agents are self employed and the average travel agent salary is around $32,000 per year.
There is no doubt, the travel industry is not quite as glamorous as it seems. But if you love to travel, are good with people, and can find a niche that works for you, it can be a fun and rewarding career.