1. You'll be broke, but you'll travel like a billionaire. Think about this as a lifestyle more than a career. The pay is not great — about $35,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics — but there's no other industry where you get to travel like this. You'll regularly go on free trips to luxury resorts sponsored by hotel companies or resorts. Based on your Instagram alone, your friends will think you're living the high life.
2. You get paid on commission, so first and foremost, you're a salesperson. Your job is to recommend things like hotels and excursions, because you get paid a percentage for everything you book for your clients. When you're an in-house agent with a travel agency, you typically have an extremely low base salary and an 80–20 commission split. That means if you get paid 10 percent commission on booking a hotel, 80 percent of that commission goes to your agency and you only get to keep 20 percent of it. If you have enough clients, you can become an independent agent, which means you work for yourself but remain affiliated with a host agency. As an independent agent, you lose the base salary but you get to keep 80 percent of your commission while your host agency keeps 20. At that point, you can start to make a little money since the bulk of your salary comes from commission.
3. Anyone can be a travel agent. It's not like being a real estate agent, where you have to pass a series of tests to prove that you know your stuff. When I started working as a travel agent right out of college, I didn't know anything. I'd barely even traveled out of Portland, where I grew up. I got the job after a series of persistent emails and a good first interview. It's definitely useful to know things like basic history and geography but there are no real required skills.
4. Developing a niche is essential. No one can have an encyclopedic knowledge of the whole world, so the most successful travel agents choose a specialty. You might focus on cruises, or African safaris, or trips to Italy. [Before I started my company] I specialized in honeymoons and travel for destination weddings, which I narrowed down to Tahiti, Fiji, Mexico, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. I knew every hotel, every restaurant, and every excursion in those areas that related to a romantic vacation.
5. Traveling is a regular part of the job, but it's not a vacation. Every few months, travel agents go on "fam trips," short for "familiarization," to brush up their knowledge and learn about new features in their territory. You try everything you'd want to sell to your clients: You sleep in the hotels, you eat the food, you get the massages. Sometimes you can even bring a guest. The first few times, it feels ridiculously luxurious, and it is. But you're there to work. You have to be up at 7 a.m. the next day and remain professional while visiting as many as 10 hotel sites in a day, inspecting each of the rooms, and taking notes on everything. You can't sleep in and relax on the beach like you would on a real vacation.
6. Hotel reps will become your best friends. When you're working in an agency, hotel reps will come in every single day to give presentations about why you should recommend their hotel to your clients. They usually bring food with them, so it's like a free lunch every day. Once you have a niche, you'll see the same travel reps at your regular fam trips and you'll develop a relationship with them from regularly sending them business. Those relationships are super important, because when you need to call in a favor, like upgrading someone's room, you have someone to hook it up.
7. Learning to book travel is like learning a new language. Every travel agency has access to a Global Distribution System, which is basically software that lists all of the bookings of airfare, hotels, car rentals, and so on. You'd think it would have a clean interface like Expedia, but no, it's more like Microsoft circa 1990. There's a blue screen and you have to know very specific codes to do anything; for example, to look for flight options, you have to type this symbol ‡ called the Cross of Lorraine, followed by your request. It's almost like learning how to code. It takes at least a year to get familiar with it, and much longer until each of the commands becomes intuitive.
8. Your clients will act like you're their personal butler. The job is pretty much 24/7. I always tell new travel agents to get used to being your clients' bitch, because you will get that phone call at 2 a.m. from your clients in Europe asking about details that you definitely wrote down on their itinerary. I once had a client call me from a cruise ship — which is really hard to do! — to tell me that she couldn't get the television to work in her room and could I call someone to fix it? It's ridiculous what people expect, especially on the luxury travel circuit, but at the same time, people can be very anxious about travel and you always need to be available to make sure they're taken care of, because that's part of the added value of booking your trip with a travel agent.
9. If you're an independent agent, you need your own insurance. Let's say you made a mistake on your clients' itinerary and they missed their first-class flight, which costs $6,000 a seat. You're liable for that if you did something wrong. And there are hundreds of things that can go wrong, and they will. You definitely need errors and omissions insurance, which can be expensive, but if you accidentally screw something up, you don't have to pay out of pocket for the cost of the mistake.
10. Clients will come back to you for your thoughtfulness. Travel is a very personal thing, and the best travel agents have empathy for what the individual traveler wants to get out of the trip, whether it's beautiful memories with their family or an adventure or a deeper understanding of the local culture. Since I worked primarily with honeymoons and weddings, I'd regularly use my hotel connections to make sure my clients had a bottle of wine waiting for them in their room or a couple's photo next to the bed. Those personal touches are the reason people continue to use travel agents rather than booking for themselves online.
11. Travel agents are not a dying breed. Every time I tell someone I'm a travel agent, they're like, "Wait, travel agents still exist?" The answer: Yes, and we still account for one-third of all travel booked in the United States. It's still a profitable industry in the United States and there's no reason to believe the industry is dying off.
12. You'll stop taking normal vacations. Some travel agents do still travel for fun, but most will do at least one hotel site inspection or other work-related task while they're there. The industry is very small, so when hotel reps see your Facebook status shows you're in London, they'll insist you come say hello, see the latest remodel, and try the new menu at the hotel restaurant — gratis, of course. It's a double-edged sword: You'll have friends and free swag everywhere you go, but you can never really travel without thinking of work.
Katelyn O'Shaughnessy is a former luxury travel agent and the CEO and founder of TripScope.
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