Travel is not a well-paid industry. But are the fringe benefits associated with the sector enough to attract and retain staff? Piers Ford finds out.
The online travel industry has never had a problem promoting itself as a career prospect. The skill of selling a dream holiday still transcends the reality of a slow, wet afternoon on the high street or a hermetically sealed call centre.
And the fringe benefits of working in a business that thrives on aspiration and glamour ensure there are still plenty of people prepared to consider more than the basic salary on offer, just to be part of it.
However, travel companies themselves are being forced to increasingly look beyond traditional sales and marketing skills in their recruitment strategies as the online market demands constant innovation.
According to some specialist recruitment consultants, this is bringing them into direct competition with web companies well outside their normal spheres of operation, where they are not necessarily preaching to the converted.
“Travel can be seen as a hunting ground for many other organisations to poach staff,” says John Tolmie, managing director of AA Appointments. “But it depends on the job. If you’re working for an agency, the product you’re selling is the dream, so you probably wouldn’t go off to Marks and Spencer. But if you’re in a technical role – programming, for example, or web management – it matters less who you’re working for, and getting paid more is likely to be the point. For these people, it comes down to money.”
Gail Kenny, managing director for specialist recruitment consultancy, Gail Kenny Executive Search, says the industry is good at retaining people – once they’ve come into it, that is.
“The main issue is that it’s harder to attract good talent from other sectors that may be paying salaries 20%-30% higher,” she says. “Flexible salary banding helps, because it means you can bring someone in at the right level, depending on their experience. Salary levels are creeping up and becoming more competitive, but it’s hard for somebody to contemplate such a drop to move across from another industry. You need to ensure you are paying market rates and that might be difficult for smaller companies.”
It might also be the deciding factor for a candidate who has experienced the peaks and troughs of employment in the travel sector once too often.
“We recently approached somebody who had been made redundant five times in 10 years,” Tolmie recalls. “She is now working for Direct Line and told us: ‘It’s not the most glamorous job but I’m being paid a lot better.’”
Tolmie says the unique complexities of online business models within the travel sector mean that many marketing specialities, particularly in the business-to-business area – hotel contracting, for example – are not easily replicated.
“These roles are sought after and are nice to have, so once people arrive, they are easier to retain,” he says.
And recruitment within the sector is thriving, because people occupying more traditional roles jump at the chance to move to the leading edge of the industry and work for an online operation.
“If you’re looking at the attraction and retention of individuals, it’s all about who you’re competing with,” Tolmie says. “A dot-com role will appeal to somebody coming from a tour operator. Online companies are perceived as being at the frontline of travel, so they will attract travel-skilled people easily. But if you’re trying to attract people from Yahoo! or Google, that’s a different matter. That’s where you need a differentiator.”
In many ways, that differentiator is unchanged since Thomas Cook pioneered the package holiday: travel is a dynamic industry based around an
interesting product. It’s just that the online model is forcing the players to innovate and second-guess their customers more quickly. And the major online players are now very good at using innovation as a recruitment hook.
“We are faced with challenges from sectors outside the travel and technology areas, as we are seeing employees showing more ‘converged’ skills – whether it be a mix of technology and marketing skills, or skills from different industries such as travel and the hi-tech sector,” says Joe Kenny, HR director at Lastminute.com.
“Retention will always be a challenge but it isn’t always about remuneration. Lastminute.com’s successes are built on the environment and energy of the company, fair reward, an opportunity for progression, a challenge, fun and offering an environment where employees can express themselves.”
Elsewhere, Rob McDavitt, vice-president of HR at Expedia, admits the recruitment market has “been more challenging” during the past 12-18 months, but says that all the feedback it gathers during its recruitment processes suggests that the company’s name is one of the main attractions. And it recruits from a broad range of sectors.
Expedia’s new managing director, Caroline Cartellieri, has herself moved across from retail giant Kingfisher and says she was hoping to rejoin an organisation that is “young, full of energy and still in start-up mode”.
Cartellieri says the recruitment process – and the people she met throughout – endorsed her expectations and convinced her Expedia would be the right place for her next move.
McDavitt is cagier about retention. “People do leave sometimes, but not very often because we’re seen as the leaders in this area,” he says. “When they go, it’s usually because of a life decision or because they want to go and do something very different.”
Thomas Cook HR director Clive Adkin doesn’t consider retention to be a major issue either, although he suggests that a multi-faceted company offers more scope for development than a pure online operation. “We tend to see that once someone joins the travel industry, they stay within the sector,” he says. “While salaries are higher in other areas, like financial services, the product and general business ambience is different.
“For many people, working environment is more important than salary. We’re a major organisation with distinct business areas such as retail, holidays, and aviation, so there is a lot to offer people in terms of different career paths. Online organisations tend to be smaller and more one-dimensional, which may lead people to seek other challenges after a time.”
The major online players would obviously dispute this, but smaller web-based companies do face a recruitment challenge. In an age of squeezed margins, staff have to be more productive than ever.
Charter Flight Centre generates almost 100% of its business via its website, although 75% of that is actually then processed by telephone. Managing director Mark Turner says this means that its staff do not currently need to have abundant e-commerce skills.
“Our policy is not to be flashy, and we don’t plan to recruit people to make the site flashy and more complex. But automating the post-booking processes is a priority and we have just recruited someone from a computer background to help at the back end, so we’ll invest time in bringing them up internally.”
Gail Kenny says smaller companies might even offer candidates more opportunity to have an impact and influence the company’s development. But it is a candidate’s market right now, she says, and if the industry has a major fault, it is that some companies move too slowly through the recruitment process.
“If you react quickly and get your offer on the table, you’ll be more likely to find the best people,” she says. “People will hold on once they’re in. But they’re also prepared to consider their options outside and within, and weigh them equally.”