Faced with a recruitment crisis, the corporate travel sector must find new ways to attract and retain the best people. Bev Fearis reports
It never stands still.
It’s a way of life, not a job.
Once it’s in your blood you’ll want to stay a part of it.
I just can’t see myself working anywhere else.
It’s not particularly well paid and has had more than its fair share of knocks over the years, but ask anyone why they work in business travel and the responses above (all genuine) are typical.
Even after the terrible trials and tribulations of the pandemic, the travel industry is still held close to the hearts of those working in it and is managing to entice back many of those who were forced to leave.
“It’s in their blood,” says Clive Wratten, CEO of the Business Travel Association. “Many people have gone away and missed it and are now coming back. They can see there is now more security and that the industry has got through this period. That’s really encouraging for us as a community.”
But not everyone has returned and as business travel recovers, faster than many predicted, the well-documented talent shortage – and the knock-on effect on service levels – remains a significant challenge.
“The whole economy is currently suffering from a labour shortage, including business travel, and it’s not difficult to understand how we got here,” says Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO Advantage Travel Partnership.
“The travel sector is an historically low-paid sector. Skilled workers who were made redundant during the pandemic haven’t returned but found roles outside of the industry, and as we are already seeing it is not possible to simply plug new starters into those roles and expect them to be up to speed overnight.”
In their bid to attract the best talent, TMCs and suppliers are becoming more creative and flexible, and some are even managing to increase salary levels.
“This has been a long time coming,” says Barbara Kolosinska, Director at C&M Travel Recruitment and C&M Executive Recruitment. “Travel has always been a comparatively poorly paid industry and when you couple this with the current lack of available candidates, wages simply had to rise.”
C&M’s salary index for the first half of 2022 found the standard new business travel job had an average salary of £29,207, up by 13.44% from the first half of 2019 (£25,746).
Lynne Griffiths, Founder and CEO of Sirius Talent Solutions, has also noticed a significant shift. “Six months ago employers were saying to us we want people in the office five days a week and we’re going to pay X amount,” she says.
“We’ve got to stop thinking that only those who have worked in travel will have the skills needed and the ability to multi-task and be able to act quickly to last-minute changes”
“Then we started to see salaries go up by 10% and employers more open to hybrid working, and then we saw salaries rise by 20% – some even by 30% – and companies saying people could be purely home based.”
Lo Bue-Said has recognised the same trend among the Advantage membership. “A lot of TMCs have had to adapt their stance on homeworking and flexible hours,” she says.
“Some that traditionally had a very strict stance on operational staff having to be in the office have now recognised that the last couple of years have made a lot of people take stock of work-life balance and what they want from their career in the future, and if they don’t allow a greater degree of flexibility, there will be another TMC that will. Obviously, that goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the pandemic enabled a lot of people to prove that homeworking can work successfully, if given the chance.”
TMCs are increasingly looking outside of the traditional talent pool to fill vacancies, she adds. “They are either taking on experienced consultants from other industries and looking to cross train, or people that have recently finished their travel studies and have the passion but not the experience.”
However, neither are quick fixes. “While it has led to them getting close to pre-pandemic head counts in many cases, the skill level is not yet there,” she admits.
Donna Fitzgerald, Chief Operating Officer Agiito, believes widening the net to other industries is essential to get the sector back on track. “We’ve got to stop thinking that only those who have worked in travel will have the skills needed and the ability to multi-task and be able to act quickly to last-minute changes,” she suggests.
“There are lots of skills that are transferable from other jobs, such as sales assistants, customer service teams in a utilities company, those working in a call centre environment or in marketing.”
The latest apprentices hired by Agiito learned quickly, she says. “These guys have astounded me. It was fantastic to see shy 18/19-year-olds come out of their shell and acquire new skills.”
While Agiito is now more open to home working, new recruits with no previous travel experience must be office based for the first six months. The company helps with relocation costs if necessary.
“They need to understand our culture and get on-site support from our teams, but once they’re on-boarded, they can work from home,” explains Fitzgerald.
Creating the right culture is key to attracting good talent, particularly in the current market. Giving staff a bonus day off on their birthday and offering car valeting on site for those who come into the office are examples of how Agiito is making its people feel valued. “And each time we do something internally in the office, we make sure we include those working remotely,” says Fitzgerald.
For example, when various fun events were held in Agiito’s offices for the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, those unable to come in were sent gift packs with a choice of drinks and other refreshments.
“People will stay with you if the culture and environment is right, if they feel they’re supported with mental health and wellbeing and, ultimately, if they come to work and enjoy it”
“Culture has always been really important to us and is even more important since we’ve had to rebuild back,” she says. “People will stay with you if the culture and environment is right, if they feel they’re supported with mental health and wellbeing and, ultimately, if they come to work and enjoy it.
“It’s been a painful time and it’s still painful. People are still grafting so we need to make sure they have a bit of fun.”
If the existing workforce is happy, it can also help attract new talent. “We have a really successful ‘recommend a friend’ scheme where each side is given a bonus payment, but ultimately you wouldn’t encourage a friend to work somewhere if you didn’t believe it was a good place to work.”
In a candidate-driven market, companies must create the right impression from the start, says Lynne Griffiths at Sirius.
“We’ve had candidates who’ve had their interviews cancelled three times at short notice. If that’s the first impression they get, they’re not going to want to work for that company.
“Likewise, we have big employers who sit on CVs for two or three weeks. By that time, the good candidates have already been snapped up. Employers must be thoughtful and considerate.”
“It’s a case of making your existing staff feel valued and shutting the stable door before the horse has bolted”
She believes 90% of the business travel consultants who were forced to leave the sector during the pandemic have now returned. Those that haven’t are unlikely to ever come back, which means there is a lot of movement between companies.
“We’re seeing a lot of counter offers, but through experience I can get a good understanding if people are seriously looking or just trying to get a salary increase with their existing employer,” she says.
“If push comes to shove, companies don’t want to lose their existing people. Recruiting someone costs time and money. You’ve got to do the on-boarding, get them set up with IT, and all of this is more difficult now with people working remotely.”
She advises companies to review the salaries and packages of their existing workforce. “It’s a case of making your existing staff feel valued and shutting the stable door before the horse has bolted.”
Sales roles are proving to be the most difficult to fill, Griffiths notes. “Many sales people have moved to technology and payment companies where they can feel more confident of meeting their targets and getting their bonuses,” she says.
“When packages are heavily reliant on bonuses, some travel companies are increasing base salaries to entice people back into the industry or retain existing teams.”
Demonstrating a clear career path is also important to attract new candidates and keep existing staff, says Catherine Logan, GBTA Regional Vice President EMEA.
“Employers need to show people the opportunities for advancement in their organisations, should they want it, and retain the people they’ve got by nurturing them and investing in their development.”
Coming out the pandemic, she believes there are even greater career opportunities for many travel managers.
“The role of the travel manager has become more strategic, expanding into areas such as risk management, sustainability, wellbeing, procurement, communications, technology, and helping companies to make decisions on where and how people should work and when and how they should travel and meet. As a result the potential career path is widening,” she explains.
With this in mind, ITM has set up a taskforce looking at ways to remind people of what’s great about working in the travel industry, particularly the broad level of skills that a corporate buyer will build as part of their role.
“There is no other industry that presents such a plethora of opportunities to build so many different skillsets in different roles,” says ITM Head of Programme Kerry Douglas.
“Whatever your strengths or weaknesses, there is a role for everyone in business travel. It’s also the only industry that is connected on such a global scale that is so dynamic and constantly changing, which opens up new doors for career progression.”
Stu Booy, Customer Service Director at Diversity Travel, believes working in the travel industry still holds appeal.
“Travel is such a great sector, even despite the challenges we’ve faced this year,” he says.
“Selling this to people from outside of travel should never be a challenge, as many perform similar roles but in potentially less fulfilling environments. For example, one of our most successful recent recruits came to us from booking lessons for a driving school!”
One of the best ways for the industry to attract talent is for travel professionals, especially those who left and have returned, to become advocates for the industry.
“We need those within the industry to talk about what they like about it,” says BTA’s Wratten who, like many, believes buyers, TMCs and suppliers need to pull together to make travel more appealing as a career choice.
“We need to work with suppliers to bring back fam trips and the other ‘perks’.”
“We need those within the industry to talk about what they like about it”
He believes the industry also needs to change the perception that corporate travel management is just about business people going to sign deals or sales people on a sales trip, and show that it’s also fashion designers going to a show, sports stars travelling to an event, or aid workers helping in a natural disaster. “And, ultimately, we need to get people to understand and appreciate the key role the industry plays in the success of a business and to the wider economy,” he says.
“If we could get, for example, the CEO of a big organisation to actually speak to a travel consultant and tell them how they were integral to that organisation winning a big account or to complete a major project, that would make a real difference.”