It seems like just yesterday!
30 years ago today, I was 21, fresh out of college and anxious to get into the “real world.” It was 1980 and unemployment was at 8%, interest rates were soaring, and fortunately, we were not technically attuned to every terrifying moment of the recession.
I graduated with a triple major, Spanish, English, and secondary education, but teaching was not what I wanted to do. Not right away anyway. Because I was fluent in Spanish I was offered a job in international banking at an Atlanta bank, but that seemed way too serious. (Ah…the regret I feel sometimes about passing that opportunity up.)
I wanted a fun job! I couldn’t be a flight attendant because I couldn’t see the length of the plane without visual aid so I chose the second best job…a travel agent. I answered an ad that offered a position where I could “travel the world free or for greatly reduced prices.” How could I pass that up!
It wasn’t easy getting the job though. I guess a college degree, fluency in a foreign language, advanced typing skills, and being young and foolish didn’t qualify to sit at a desk selling travel all day. I think the “young and foolish” won out and after a month of constant calls, I was awarded a job as an assistant to the travel agents with an hourly wage of .50 over minimum wage!
The agency was located in one of the first shopping malls in the city and we were required to be open the same hours as the mall, 9am-9pm. I worked long, hard hours, for a dictatorial owner who sat in a glass enclosed office and monitored our phone calls. A bell would ring when someone entered our office and if we didn’t immediately stand up and greet the person, have them fill out a form to win a free prize, and then ask how we could help them, then a buzzer would sound at our desk and we would have to put a quarter in a jar for future office parties.
Now that I think about it, I don’t remember any office parties. My boss expected and demanded a lot from us, but he was generous with the many gifts we received from the airlines, tour, and cruise companies. As a reward for high productivity the agency distributed 10-12 free airline tickets to each employee every year. In addition we received so many familiarization trips that we couldn’t use all of them. These were, and still are, trips that a cruise line or tour operator would organize for travel agents on different cruises or destinations so that we could experience “first hand” what our clients would experience. To this day it still is the best learning and sales tool offered. And I did, “travel the world free or for greatly reduced prices.”
After two years, I had progressed in skills, responsibilities, and salary to drop my second job as a waitress which paid more in two days than I made in a week as a travel agent. Over the next 10 years I worked for many different agencies in different capacities, mostly in management positions until one day, I had a brilliant idea. I would open my own agency. I certainly knew I was smarter than most agency owners, and I had proven that I wasn’t afraid of hard work.
And here I sit. Eighteen years later, still selling travel, still struggling to earn a living, still loving to sell vacations, and still wondering if I know anything about the career I have chosen.
The one thing I am sure of is that anyone can learn the technical skills needed to be a travel consultant. (We have now advanced from agent to consultants). But so much more is needed to be student of human nature, on a regular and ongoing basis. For this is what is absolutely necessary to be successful in the people business. We sell the invisible. We sell dreams. We sell the most important week of a person’s life… their vacation.
Learning to really listen and discern the desires and dreams of the voice on the phone is a rare skill. It is more difficult when you find yourself reading an email or text document and you have to determine what is really being said. The stories I could share of celebration, gratitude, grief, panic, and anger are many. And it’s surprising how a faceless voice on the phone can make people feel comfortable enough to share their secrets, their tragedies and their secret desires.
I feel sorry for the next generation. Yes, they are more technically advanced than I am. Yes, they are faster, smarter, and more analytical than I am. But will they be students of human nature? Will they learn what we all need? Will they learn, or have the inclination in learning about people, the one and only thing that keeps this world of ours spinning?
I often regret that I didn’t choose a career where I could make a more comfortable living, that didn’t depend on discretionary income, and that didn’t rely so much on “people” skills. But then I remind myself how rich I really am. After all, I travel the world for greatly reduced prices and experience the satisfaction of helping others escape from the drudgery of their everyday lives.
I think I’ll go plan my next vacation. I’ll send you a postcard.
Debbie Perkins has been selling travel for 30 years and lives in Birmingham AL. She enjoys hearing about other agents’ stories. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.