Travel agency leaders fear Covid talent drain

Agency bosses fear the end of furlough and continued travel restrictions travel could drain talent from the trade as it struggles to attract newcomers to the industry.

Barrhead Travel is planning a multi-channel recruitment campaign to launch “when we can see global travel returning to a better normality” but president Jacqueline Dobson warned: “Lateral thinking is required from the industry for future recruitment drives.”

She said the company is “looking at how we can really convey the message of just why a career in travel is so rewarding” and called on the industry at large to “get creative” in order to “change perceptions about working in travel” which is “essential for the entire industry’s recovery”.

More: Comment: We must look at how to attract the next generation

“While we’re still at the very early outset of travel recovery, it is imperative that we look further into the future now,” said Dobson. “If travel does continue to unlock over the next six months, our industry will face an influx of the pent-up demand. Not a bad problem, but travel businesses will need to be sufficiently staffed and well-trained.”

Barrhead plans to target apprentices in December and late spring to target school and college leavers, but said she would “welcome engagement from other businesses in the sector on how we work together to attract new and future talent to fuel our industry.”

Consortia reported members focussing on retaining talent.

The Travel Network Group said some are looking at redundancies and many are looking to reduce staff’s hours in order to keep them on the books. A spokeswoman said: “They don’t want to lose their great people.”

The Advantage Travel Partnership said the end of furlough is a “huge concern” with “members not wanting to lose experienced members of staff”.

Leisure director Kelly Cookes said: “The loss of skill is a huge concern. Experienced agents are leaving the industry either by choice, due to the instability, or due to losing jobs. We will see a gap in knowledge and skill, and attracting talent will need addressing.” And she warned: “Bringing apprentices on-board won’t solve this issue in the short-term.”

Spear Travels chairman Peter Cookson said the loss of talent is “the elephant in the room” and a “real concern”. He has filled two of five vacancies and all staff will be full-time by October 1.

He said: “We have lost valuable staff going outside of travel because they were fed up waiting to get back to work and were worried, despite what we have been telling them, about what would happen after furlough finishes and they wanted a proper salary and regular, normal work. They will never return to travel. Huge loss and decades of experience in many cases.

Cookson said: “It is increasingly impossible to pay people what they are worth in our industry, as the margins are so slim.”

However, he stressed: “This isn’t new; we have been struggling for years on recruitment, well before Covid.”

Deben Travel is bringing three staff off furlough but staff will be working reduced hours – some still have second jobs. Owner Lee Hunt said: “We need them. People want to book with agents with experience. We have to be creative in the way we bring people back.”

But he warned: “I’m really worried our industry will lose a lot of talent. Then what will differentiate us from the online players? We will feel the effects in five to ten years’ time; we won’t have the staff with 30 years’ experience.

Miles Morgan Travel chairman Miles Morgan is on 80% staffing levels and said the talent drain is “a concern” and warned of “significantly more work on agents’ desks” currently because “every single booking is in ‘intensive care’.”

Polka Dot Travel director Mark Johnson said recruitment is “ a huge problem in most retail industries at the moment”.

“We are trying to recruit but it is without doubt very difficult. Staff just want our happy industry back again and to be busy selling holidays.”

But looking forward, he said: “Despite the government doing their upmost to wreck our industry, we are a resilient bunch and will rise again.”

More: Comment: We must look at how to attract the next generation

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