TMCs report stiff competition for talent as they bid to adjust their workforces to serve growing travel volumes
As travel management companies rebuild staffing levels following extensive layoffs and furloughs due to the pandemic, they are seeing a competitive environment in attracting talent.
Several TMCs are in hiring mode at the moment. BCD Travel, for example, has nearly 600 open positions worldwide, including travel consultants, programme managers and travel tech experts, BCD senior manager of talent acquisition Suzanne Miechels recently said.
Flight Centre is currently recruiting for about 150 open roles across various business areas in the US and Canada region alone, according to Flight Centre Travel Group people and culture leader for the Americas Lisa Baker.
And Egencia late last year announced that, fresh from its acquisition by American Express Global Business Travel, it was starting a “major recruitment drive” for about 100 full-time, tech-focused employees across Europe, the US and India.
Given the high volume of layoffs at the onset of the pandemic, it would seem to follow that the pool from which to draw that talent would be deep, but TMCs say they are seeing some challenges in recruitment.
“It’s very competitive right now,” says Mark Rude, Amex GBT’s VP of global service delivery for the Americas. “There are less people in the talent pool because what the pandemic has done is forced decisions for people in terms of what’s most important to them. For people who were planning to retire, this was a good time, because family has become more important to them – and this has affected the whole travel industry.”
Beyond that, some are reluctant to return to the travel industry given its disproportionate impact from Covid-19, says Rude. This is amplified in countries that faced the strictest restrictions and lockdowns, where the industry was hardest hit.
In Australia, for example, there were about 35,000 travel advisors prior to the pandemic; in New Zealand, there were about 6,000, according to Australian travel technology company Aeronology CEO and cofounder Russell Carstensen. The pandemic chopped those numbers by 80 per cent, and many are still reeling from that “brutal and swift reduction,” he says. That has led to service challenges.
“The biggest issue globally is that because a lot have left, there’s too much work, and they can’t keep up with all the bookings,” Carstensen says. “Sometimes premium customers couldn’t get through because things are so busy.”
Some of the industry knowledge lost with job cuts will be irreplaceable, particularly those agents with the skills to navigate the notoriously user-unfriendly global distribution system green screen, which requires extensive training and experience to master. Campbell Travel president Teri Goins says newcomers usually learn the graphical user interface version of the GDS, referred to as the “point-and-click” version.
“The legacy workforce would never [accede] to point-and-click, because it’s faster for them to work in the native GDS, but new candidates coming up live on point-and-click,” Goins says. “It’s an opportunity to teach them something they are used to doing.”
The need to reach a wider swath of content beyond the GDSs has also complicated the skill set required, says Flight Centre Travel Group Leisure Americas president Marc Casto.
“Prior to the pandemic, there was a drive to disintermediated content, largely driven by NDC and supplier dot-com sites,” he explains. “These challenges led to a series of inefficient, partial solutions to meet the immediate needs.”
Some TMCs used the pandemic slowdown as an opportunity to improve tech for their consultants. Flight Centre, for example, deployed Helio, a point-of-sale shopping and search tool, on its leisure side, which Casto says is on track to double agent productivity compared with before the pandemic.
Of course, bringing back laid-off employees to the fold has also been a focus for TMCs. Amex GBT’s Rude says that 96 per cent of employees who were asked to return agreed to come back.
Flight Centre created an alumni site, “Flighties Forever,” to showcase opportunities across the company to former employees and industry professionals where they can find job alerts and detail their own skills and interests to be matched to opportunities before they are advertised externally, says Baker. “It was always our intention to bring as many Flighties back home as possible,” she says. “It was important we remained connected to the people who make up our family tree.”
For recruiting outside of their own employee base, word of mouth has become more critical for TMCs, says Rude. “Because there has been a bit of shaking of the confidence of the workforce and whether travel is a good place to be, when prospective employees are making a decision to come and work for us, it’s much more important that they get the vote of confidence from someone they know and trust,” he says. “It’s a bigger decision for them than in the past.”
Flight Centre also recently launched a new referral programme offering employees bonuses when they result in successful hires, Baker says.
TMCs are honing strategies to bring in talent from outside the industry as well. BCD, for example, has expanded its travel apprenticeship programmes to attract new talent, says Miechels.
TripActions has an academy to give instruction and certification across the subject areas necessary for employees to ensure it can hire a mix from different industries, says CMO Meagen Eisenberg. “Any company needs to marry the domain expertise with the academic role expertise,” she says.
Larger agencies have some advantages in the competition for talent, as those returning to or entering the travel industry often feel more secure at established brands or those with more solid financial backing. But TMCs have also had to adapt to new workplace expectations from employees in order to remain competitive in the talent hunt.
“The main areas of competition within any industry now have more to do with compensation and employee value propositions, benefits and remote work offerings,” says Flight Centre’s Baker. “We introduced a flexible working policy with remote and hybrid options that has minimised many geographic-specific challenges for us.”
TMCs also say their approach in corporate social responsibility plays a role in recruitment as potential employees seek companies that share their values.
“There’s always a tendency to simplify what it takes to attract good talent. It’s a bit about brand and pay, but it’s also about purpose and culture,” says Rude. “Seeing travel as a force for good is very much a driver in things we do, and employees are looking for an organisation where [things like] social progress and environmental progress are important.”
That also includes recruiting a more diverse workforce representative of the population. Campbell’s Goins, for example, says the agency has introduced an internship programme in Dallas, working with a high school with a majority Hispanic and black student population, where students have the chance to work across the agency’s divisions, including corporate travel. Upon graduation, they have the opportunity to join full-time in the division of their choice or to get an associate degree from a junior college, for which Campbell foots the bill.
Some travel professionals remain too shell-shocked to fully recommit to the industry post-pandemic and may need to ease in a bit more, says Carstensen. Aeronology earlier this year launched a new travel retail brand, The Travel Advisors, at which it hopes to attract a good portion of the talent that had left the industry to use its technology offerings to either set up their own business or as a part of a consortia.
Carstensen plans to take the programme global over the next few years. “They may come in as a casual part-time manner, because we found a lot will not leave their existing jobs,” he says. “It’s a way to take little steps, with a low cost of entry and a low cost of staying there.”
Still, TMC executives say they expect reticence to join the travel industry to be short-lived as volumes, revenues and stability return.
“Travel is an industry driven by passion, and those who are in it love it,” says Flight Centre’s Baker. “The travel industry has proved itself resilient over the years regardless of natural disasters and world events and we are finding that we have a mix of talent applying for roles right now that include both those who want a new career as well as those who left out of necessity during the pandemic and are keen to return.”
Goins says not to discount the draw the leisure side brings in propelling future travel professional recruitment, with social media influencers highlighting the glamorous side of travel. “For a couple of years, we were wondering what we were going to do with the workforce aging out, but now there’s endless opportunity,” says Goins. “Travel has become a very attractive industry to be in.”