Choosing the Right Travel Path

You’ve arrived home from London. You’ve cleared customs by some fluke. Your backpack is unpacked and you’ve attended more obligatory “Welcome Home” parties that any one person should ever have to endure. Now it’s time to settle down and find a job. The question you are faced with is which path to follow. Feeling a bit like Robert Frost, you stand at the crossroads wondering which road to take.

I’m here to break it down for you.

Make no mistake, the travel and tourism industry is huge. So big that it accounted for 9.25 trillion USD worth of revenue to the Global economy in 2019 according to Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data. That’s a heck of a lot of money. The list of occupations that fall underneath that golf-size umbrella is extensive. It spans from flight attendant to a hotel concierge to the gal who stands on the edge of the tarmac with the bright orange batons waving in an aircraft. (btw…her actual job title is air marshaller – cocktail party conversation starter). There is really no end to the options before you.

I don’t believe it makes sense for me to dissect every possibility. That might be a lot to review. If you think wielding orange batons might be your thing, then I’ll save you some time and tell you to stop reading now. I won’t be covering the trials and tribulations of an air marshaller, although I’m sure it’s riveting.  My plan is to share with you the paths that I know intimately. These are – working for a travel agency, working for a tour operator or travel wholesaler, or setting out on your own path. I will explain the difference.

Working in a Travel Agency

I thought I would cover this avenue first as it’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone thinks about a career in the travel industry. A few years ago, most travel agencies were considered bricks & mortar shops. The term refers to a business that has a physical location, and in order to work there, you would need to be on site. Four walls, desk, water cooler, mouse pad, ergonomic chair, insert plant of choice. They still exist and there is a special kind of client who prefers to communicate with their travel consultant face to face. 

The benefits of working for a traditional agency is that they provide a sense of family and community that some people really enjoy. There is something to be said about having a work family you see on a daily basis, one that you can lean on for immediate support when the shit hits the fan…and the shit will definitely go flying at some point. They are often privately owned, sometimes franchises.

The downside of a traditional agency is that there is often less flexibility with schedules. Depending on the operational hours of the business, you are expected to work your shift, whatever that may be, and will often include weekends. Each business runs slightly different from the other. Some agencies will pay a mediocre salary along with a slice of commission that you earn off the sales you make. And that amount of commission really depends on so many factors. There could be multiple pay structures. For instance, take a lower salary but a higher backend commission split. Or opt for a more secure higher base salary with negligible commission. Given the choice, I’d always choose the opportunity to make more on commission. It may sound like a gamble at first but you are essentially betting on yourself. And I always say you can never go wrong betting on yourself.

Some agencies will offer a home-based option as well. These options tend to be more commission-based as a rule of thumb. Also, there is often an expectation that you have to drive your own leads to the business whereas, in a bricks & mortar environment, you can possibly count on the store driving the marketing and leads for you.

Of course, working from home has its obvious privileges from the savings on gas and dry cleaning costs of that fancy office attire, the at-home situation also comes with its negatives. If you have children, you’ll still have to shell out for daycare as you can’t have Billy and Raven drumming out “Smells like Teen Spirit” on the pots and pans in the kitchen. However, I have a lot of agent friends where this scenario works for them. If they have to step out to see little Billy recite the Gettysburg Address in his 5th-grade assembly at 2 PM in the afternoon, that’s doable. Paired with the security that a bricks and mortar agency offers, it could be a good fit for you.

The other advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it, is that there is a lot of variety in what you get to sell. One moment you are counselling on which ship is best to cruise the Mediterranean and the next, you could be booking a family to Disneyworld. You may well love the diversity that this offers but for me, it’s more difficult to prove your value to a would-be client if you know just a little bit about everything. How could you possibly be an expert on everything when you are spreading yourself so thinly? And, in my experience, you also don’t get to pick and choose what kind of client walks through the doors. Booking a flop and drop* vacation has never been my thing. And that type of client tends to make up 80% of the foot traffic that walks into a bricks & mortar shop.

Working for a Tour Operator | Wholesaler

Most of my experience comes from working for a tour operator/wholesaler. It’s the route I am the most familiar with and I have no regrets. At the beginning of my career, it really was either this or working in a travel agency and for me, the decision was a no brainer.

The biggest attraction with following this path is that tour operators tend to offer a more specialized route. Whether you want to focus on cruises or just selling Europe or specializing in destination weddings – Tour Operators tend to do one thing and do it well.

The first half of my career was spent working for a tour operator who specialized in selling soft-adventure small group trips to exotic places. The last 10 + years have been working for a wholesaler selling bespoke travel and some group departures but to Asia only. This course of action allowed me to become a specialist in those niche travel styles. No longer was I being asked which resort in Varadero had the best beach chairs. 

There is a basket of other benefits that make working for an operator a suitable choice. 

  1. The stability of choosing a reputable company, either private or publicly owned. 
  2. The camaraderie of working with a group of like-minded people towards a common goal
  3. The security of a guaranteed paycheck is always a nice touch
  4. The opportunity for career development and climbing up the proverbial rungs
  5. The luxury to make mistakes on someone else’s dime – because you will make mistakes

The negative is that there is little flexibility in your work schedule. And ultimately, you have someone else to answer to. You can only go as high as the structure of the organization allows you to. And, as with anything…you limit your earning potential to a degree when you work for someone else. Less risk…less reward.

Branching Out on Your Own and/or Joining a Host Agency

If I were to go back and do it all over again, I think I might  have gone in this direction. It’s hard to say for sure. There are no do-overs in life. I have grown to love the flexibility of working on my own and answering only to my dog. And life today is so much different than it was back in 1998 when I first started.

Today, you can sell travel and the limits as to what you can make is determined by you. Sure, it can be lonely at times. There is nobody standing around your Brita with whom to discuss the episodic twists on the latest trending Netflix original series. You stare at your dog. He stares back. And there is no chance of an office romance but the pizza delivery guy is beginning to look pretty dang good. Life can be like that working from home.

But, running your own travel business can also be fiercely rewarding. Who says you have to work from your 550 square foot walk-up? Why not work from a cabana near the ocean in Cabo? And when you get sick of eating rice and fish, change the channel. Move to the Amazon or maybe a stilted boathouse in Thailand. The only caveat, you’ll need a good, strong internet connection. But your office attire could easily be a toasted coconut and pineapple coloured sarong and some flip flops.

There are two roads available to you should you go this route.

First, find a great Host agency and hitch your wagon to their agency. There are many Host agencies to choose from. I have an upcoming post that talks about some of my favourites. I recommend doing some research first with an eye open for the types of marketing support that are offered. The preferred agreements that they have with suppliers and the cost to become an affiliate agent vs. the commission split they pay. As a general rule, the more economical it is to join a host agency, the less you’ll earn per booking. Sometimes it might make more sense to pay a little more upfront to get a larger slice of the commission pie.

Joining a good Host can make all the difference in how successful you are. There are a lot of really good ones that offer on-going training and support groups within the host that you can lean on. Yet, you are still very much a sole business owner with both the risks and most of the rewards.

The other main benefit of joining a Host agency is for legal and billing purposes. Depending on where you want to set up shop, there will be licencing that you have to consider. In addition, there are a whole host of other legalities to take into consideration. I really can’t get into that type of minutiae because it varies a great deal between states and provinces. No matter what, you can’t just decide to sell travel one day, open up your laptop and have at it. For that reason, joining a Host agency is a perfect way to get started.

Finally, the last option you have available is to completely go out on your own, acquire all of the licencing your state or province requires. You need to hire an accountant and seek legal advice before you launch. I’m really not going to go into this option at all at this stage. Most of the people I know who have done this successfully, in all cases, had already been in the travel industry for some years before they branched out on their own. But it is an option and one that I will investigate more later down the line.

Of course, if none of these routes appeal to you, I suppose it’s not too late to pick up those orange cones and head to the airport.

If you haven’t already, sign up below to watch my video on the many great reasons to consider a career in travel in the first place.


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