A centralised travel body could help to clarify and resolve industry issues, while also promoting travel as a career path, says Richard Tams.

If I were to tell you that I was on hold for almost an hour on the phone the other day for an airline to refund a ticket, you probably wouldn’t be surprised. In fact, you’d probably tell me

that I was lucky in comparison to all those waiting in line for hours at Europe’s airports last summer. The worrying thing is that both during and in the aftermath of the pandemic, we have come to expect such poor levels of customer service.

Firstly, we were told that Covid restrictions were preventing staff from doing their jobs and now it seems that there is a chronic shortage of staff across the entire travel industry. Many left the industry during the pandemic and only a fraction returned. So why is it taking the industry so long to backfill these vacancies with fresh talent?

When I was growing up, I never dreamt of going into the travel business. I didn’t much fancy being a holiday rep and I wasn’t clever enough to be a pilot. It wasn’t until I applied for an airline graduate scheme while at university that I realised there were other jobs in the industry. When I arrived at the airline, fresh-faced from my studies, I had no idea that a whole department was dedicated to inventory management, tasked with maximising the revenue on each of BA’s routes, and that my first job would be doing just that on Manchester to New York. I couldn’t imagine that the airline would have field sales teams around the world driving business to the airline from travel agents, corporate clients and tour operators.

In particular, the whole concept of ‘business’ travel was new to me. Unlike the world of leisure travel, this segment of the industry is almost completely invisible to those outside. The idea that there were multinational companies dedicated to business travel management was completely alien to me. I don’t think I was alone. A leading business travel buyer told me the other day, “Let’s face it, no one grows up dreaming of being a travel manager or a business travel consultant. Not because it’s not a fascinating job, but because it’s a job that most people, let alone school leavers, don’t even know exists.”

Talent shortage

So given the general lack of knowledge of this part of the industry, is it any surprise that the business travel sector is finding it hard to recruit new talent into the proliferation of job roles currently vacant? Not only are hotels having to close whole floors of hotel rooms while airlines are having to cancel thousands of flights, the problem exists right across the value chain.

According to the latest poll of Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) members, 41 per cent of respondents reported staff shortages having a ‘significant impact’ on corporate travel programmes. More than half of travel suppliers (51 per cent) reported staff shortages had affected travel. The problems of attracting new talent are choking growth in the sector and impeding the industry’s ability to get back to even pre-pandemic volumes.

This is a serious problem made worse by the fact that, by its own admission, the entire travel industry has neglected to effectively champion its cause for many years. Even in the darkest days of the pandemic amid a maelstrom of travel restrictions, the lobbying of government was fragmented and inconsistent. The lack of a unified response from the industry through a coherent central trade body diluted the message and allowed some within government to turn a blind eye to the chaos that was ensuing from nonsensical regulations. As a result, the so-called voice of the industry appeared to come from some unlikely places while larger organisations seemed to remain silent and resigned.

It is this same lack of a central body to champion the interests of the entire travel industry that is impeding its ability to attract talent back into the sector. I am confident that there isn’t a single trade body within the entire industry that isn’t currently independently strategizing a response to this challenge. I envisage queues outside school careers fairs across the nation made up of various representatives from across the industry ready to shine a spotlight on their particular segment and spark the interest of bemused school leavers. Surely, some sort of umbrella body representing the breadth of the industry should be established above all these individual organisations to launch a unified clarion call to potential job seekers. At least then we can begin to work together to overcome this most recent existential threat to our beloved industry.

Let’s not forget as one of travel’s great leaders, Dame Irene Hays, said only recently, the sector provides a “brilliant, sexy career” and it is up to those currently working within it to keep it that way.

Richard Tams is an airline consultant and executive coach