Host Agency Reviews recently surveyed hosted travel agents on their income and demographics for the second year in a row. After compiling the data, they published an article on the findings. We at TRO decided to interview everyone involved in the gathering of info and publication of the article, as we found it to contain previously unexplored insights into the travel agent community. Enjoy.
Mary Stein joined Host Agency Reviews in 2016 as its editor. She’s passionate about supporting aspiring travel agents to turn their dreams into their livelihood. A writer by trade, she can be found working on her novel and teaching creative writing workshops when she’s not tooling around on Host Agency Reviews writing articles and newsletters. She has received awards for her writing from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation and the Loft Literary Center. She lives in Minneapolis, and loves hiking, camping, and traveling (of course!).
After a 6 year stretch as director of a national host agency, Stephanie Lee started Host Agency Reviews – a resource website with host reviews and articles to help travel agents start and grow their travel agencies. She was awarded the ASTA’s Young Professional of the Year and Travel Agent Magazine’s 30 under 30 award. As time marches on, the dates of the awards have been surreptitiously left out to avoid drawing attention to the fact she’s aging. She’s not.
Having grown up in the travel industry, Bridget can attest to the fact that it’s hard to get travel out of your blood once the travel bug bites! She’s been working in the travel industry (or traveling) as long as she can remember. Her passion is working with entrepreneurs and digging deep into the data to help others get a clearer picture of the travel industry. She’s been with Host Agency Reviews since 2016.
Travel Research Online (TRO): Your articles, the most recent being Travel Income Agent Report, are a very detailed look into the industry. Whose idea was it to investigate and break down this information?
Mary: Steph is the mastermind behind this. She came up with the idea to do the survey last year, and we refined the survey this year. No other organization was mining for this data from this segment of the industry––hosted travel agents.
Steph: Ha! Mary is too kind! I may be the mastermind, but Mary and Bridget sharing their insights helped bring this survey to fruition. Unfortunately, they haven’t been as receptive to my idea of a bumblebee survey…which is why you haven’t seen any groundbreaking research from the HAR team on that, yet.
TRO: Breaking down that amount of information into such an easily digestible form seems like it’s quite a bit of work. It is my understanding there were three of you on this project. How did the workload breakdown for each of you?
Mary: Stephanie provided the vision and direction, Bridget did all the data magic and I was primarily in charge of the story behind the data. Our dogs were in charge of keeping up morale. That was the essential distribution of tasks, but we collaborated closely (we typically do). We have fun geeking out together.
Steph: Spot on, Mary! I’ll add that I feel incredibly fortunate to spend the amount of time we do deep diving into the data. For three weeks, all three of us worked mainly on the survey.
TRO: You’ve done a previous article in the series, Who is the Hosted Travel Agent in 2018?, where you explored the details of agents’ backgrounds, demographics, work habits, and agency details. How many more do you have planned for the series?
Mary: This year we have four articles in the series. The one you mentioned (Travel Agent Income Report, 2018), Travel Agency Startup Costs and Earnings: What to Expect, and Which Travel Agent Specialties Generate the Most Income. The data was too big for one article. We’ll also include other bits of data in future articles with topics that don’t necessarily center on the data itself.
Bridget: Splitting the data into four articles allowed us to dive deeper into the data and tell a better story. The data is way more digestible and becomes much more relevant when you can explain what you’re looking at versus a big list of number points!
TRO: Do you have any personal extrapolations from the data in the surveys that travel agents sent in?
Mary: Hmmm. I guess one of the things that really struck me (and is published in our startup article) is the exponential income growth of hosted agents as they gain experience. I’ve currently been doing some research on travel agent employee salaries, and travel agent employee income growth pales in comparison to hosted agents. Of course, employee salaries will start at a much higher baseline, but they also have caps. But the real takeaway for me (and a true extrapolation and speculation) is that this momentum comes from having the autonomy to create their own business structures and spend time doing what they love.
Bridget: I’m not trying to sound corny or anything, but I loved seeing how happy agents were with their careers on an anonymous survey. And so many agents spent time writing in that their #1 reason they loved their job was getting to help others’ dreams come true. I mean, you can’t get better than that!
TRO: You plan to republish your 2017 results with the data structuring system you used in the 2018 report. How did the way you translate data change?
Mary: Bridget did go back and update our 2017 survey results using the same methodology so we can track trends long term. That, in my opinion, is one of our major long-term goals.
Bridget: We noticed anomalies in the data and results that didn’t make sense. At the heart of it, we realized there were submissions where agents seemed to confuse sales and commissions: typically putting the same number for both or having sales of x amount and no commissions. We’re working on a way to prevent/clarify this issue with the 2019 form but for the 2017 and 2018 survey, we removed entries where the sales and commissions were mathematically impossible.
TRO: How do you think travel agents can use this information to increase their own income?
Steph: What I like about the data is that it’s broken down into numerous viewpoints. New agents can look at the data and see how they’re doing compared to others in similar situations. Experienced agents can see if their agency is following the “normal” income trajectory.
Bridget: When you’re just starting out, you’re not going to be making a ton. Knowing you’re not alone, and that it is actually the norm, can help you persevere through those tough times and give you that drive to keep going.
Mary: I have to echo both these sentiments. Hosted Agents are such a fragmented and diverse segment of the travel agent industry, so it’s really a disservice to try to form a singular story in terms of income potential. The survey can help agents increase sales and income in a number of ways. The article about average costs of a travel agency startup can assist with planning and budgeting. Like Bridget said, it also can help set up expectations in terms of income potential in the short term and long term. The data on travel agent niches can support agents in choosing or honing their niche in a way that’s more lucrative for them.
TRO: What are your favorite destinations for travel?
Bridget: Ooo, that’s tough. I’m always so torn about going back to a place I loved or exploring somewhere new! When it comes to places I’d go back, backpacking in Patagonia and the Scottish Highlands are definitely top on the list!
Mary: I am probably the least travelled of the three of us! Right now, with a baby I hardly travel more than six blocks away from my house. But all jokes aside, some of my favorite destinations have been Alaska (drop everything and go) and a stint in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. But there are so many places I want to go. I guess I’m in the right industry.
TRO: Do you have any other projects on the horizon that we should be on the lookout for?
Bridget: Of course! Our 2nd big data survey of the year is coming up in October/November. Our annual Service Fee Survey helps us get an idea of the changing landscape of travel agent fees. If you’re on our newsletter list, we’ll send out a link to take the survey as soon as it is live!
Mary: What Bridget mentioned is the big one…but we always have something up our sleeve. No one knows what we’ll come up with next. We don’t even know half the time!