Want to Become a Corporate Travel Agent? Here's How
How do leisure travel agents break into corporate travel? How do travel agents who are completely new to the travel scene start out selling corporate travel if they want to bypass selling leisure travel altogether? These are good questions.
In an ideal world, there would be concrete steps for a travel agent to follow—go to corporate travel agent school, set up a home based corporate agency, and start raking in corporate clients.
But the reality of starting a corporate travel agency is not so simple—it's not quite as linear as starting a home based leisure travel agency. But I chatted with a few travel agents about how they broke into selling corporate travel, I'm here to tell you about some inroads to selling corporate travel, from all its challenges to triumphs. So hold onto your reins, because we're taking a dive.
The Appeal of Selling Corporate Travel
Maybe you're sitting at your computer, wondering why anyone would want to sell corporate travel (though this is unlikely if you've found this article). But one of the major reasons why travel agents want to sell corporate travel over leisure travel is because of the almighty dollar—corporate travel agents tend to earn more (sometimes substantially more) than leisure agents.
While we didn't get enough data from corporate agents in our 2018 income survey, ASTAs most recent Labor and Compensation Report (2015) identified a $7,000+ wage gap between corporate and leisure agents.
One reason for this is that corporate travel agents, and corporate clientele have fully embraced service fees. According to Mike Edic, a corporate travel agent for over 23 years, service fees are part of the fabric of corporate travel agent culture, "The corporate side, they just know it’s part of doing business. It’s just the price of doing business." He likens corporate service fees to paying shipping and handling when purchasing something online—customers enter into the transaction expecting to pay it. (You can read loads more on charging service fees here.)
What? Loads of money from fees? Sign me up, right? Well, okay—but here's where things start to get a little tricky . . .
The Catch 22 of Breaking into Corporate Travel
Why is it difficult to break into corporate travel? Well, here's the irony—in order to sell corporate travel, a travel agent needs to have experience selling corporate travel. But how do you get experience selling corporate travel if you can't get an entry-level corporate travel position without experience?
The easy answer would be go to corporate travel agent school and go from there. But such a thing does not exist. Not really. Herein lies the struggle for travel agents who want to break into corporate travel.
Learning GDS: Getting Your Foot in the Door to Sell Corporate Travel
Not all is lost. Jobs selling corporate travel are in high demand. While the path to entering into the industry is not linear or easy, there are ways to enter into that corporate faction of the travel industry. Below are a few strategies to get your foot in the door to sell corporate travel
1. GDS Training Programs:
While learning a GDS (Global Distribution System) won't automatically guarantee you a corporate travel job, it will help you develop the skills you need to be considered for employment as a corporate travel agent. While learning how to use GDS is no walk in the park—the GDS system can take years to master—it's not impossible. After all, people do it all the time!
But in order to learn the GDS system, you have to either invest in yourself or find someone who wants to invest in you as a travel agent.
There's a few GDS training programs around the block. While a GDS training program will help you learn the ropes, it won't necessarily guarantee you a corporate travel job. In order to stay fluent in GDS after the program, you'll need to keep your skills sharp by continuously using it. Here’s a few ways to begin trying your hand at GDS:
- Sabre Personal Trainer:
- Sabre Personal Trainer provides online GDS training that travel agents can complete at their own pace.
- IATA (International Air Transport Association)
- Provides GDS training in Amadeus, Galileo or Sabre. They offer two courses for travel agents who are beginners at GDS, and one for those who are more advanced:
The courses listed below offer 45 hours of online, self-guided study in GDS functionality training for beginners—no prior GDS knowledge is required. They are self-guided, and provide full simulation that looks, feels and works like the real GDS. They comprise 25 lessons, a quiz per lesson, and four review quizzes to prepare for the course examination.
- Foundation in Travel and Tourism Diploma Course
- Cost: $7551
- This is a general travel agency diploma course. Alongside learning Sabre GDS, it includes broader-sweeping topics such as physical geography, customer service principles, understanding travel documentation and other topics. If you wanting to learn straight-up GDS and GDS only, this course is not for you.
- Selling and Managing Airline Reservations and Travel (SMART Sabre)
- Cost: $475
- In the words of IATA, "Selling and Managing Airline Reservations and Travel (SMART) course teaches the skills and knowledge required to sell, make and manage flight, hotel and car reservations in a simulation of the Amadeus system."
- Global Distribution System Fares and Ticketing
- Cost: $4002
- According to IATA, this advanced course requires prerequisite knowledge of basic GDS functionality skills, and provides 100 hours of self-guided online training. It teaches advanced level itinerary pricing and skills.
2. Non-Travel Agent Entry-Level Jobs that Provide GDS Training:
There are entry level jobs that may show you the ropes of GDS that aren't travel agent jobs. Jobs such as working in an airline's reservation center, trying your hand as a travel-booking call center, an entry-level airline reservation agent, or getting a position at a corporate agency as an admin or support staff.
Mike Edic got his start working for an airline and learned multiple GDS systems, "I did everything that you had to do at the airport—checking someone in, we had to know all the entries for GDS. All the fare rules. I had some GDS training when I went to school, but not a lot. Each GDS speaks a different language, so each airline teaches you how to use a specific GDS."
Entry-level GDS jobs that are willing to provide on-the-job training are a great in-road to building the experience you need to become a corporate travel agent. Plus, you might save a few bucks on a GDS training program and get a first hand look at a different faction of the travel industry!
Be sure to check out our Travel Industry Jobs Board for entry-level corporate jobs!
An added benefit, working a short term part time job can be similar to the amount of time and energy it takes to complete a training program. The kicker is that with a part time job, you will still have plenty of time (and money) to start your home based corporate travel agency 🙂
These two jobs are just a few great examples of how you can build the skills needed to become a corporate travel agent. It's a great way to make sure that that sector of the industry is the right fit for you!
3. Host GDS Education
While a host agency may not provide formal GDS training, it's possible that a host agency will be willing to show you the ropes—especially if you prove yourself to be a great leisure travel agent or already have corporate client connections.
If this is something you're interested in for the future, make sure you let hosts know up front that you're interested in how they support your career trajectory as a corporate travel agent.
If you want a host that will support corporate travel, you'll want to find a host agency that offers GDS. Below is a list of host agencies listed on HAR that offer GDS:
- Montrose Travel
- Travel Planners International
- Travel Quest
- Your Travel Center
- Travel Leaders Franchise Group
These host agencies are really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to providing GDS. Want to find even more host agencies that offer GDS? Check out a complete list here!
Corporate Travel Agent Profile: 3 Travel Agents Weigh in on How They Got Their Start
Trying to outline a linear path to getting into corporate travel is like transforming a piece of abstract art into a connect the dots puzzle. There are many different ways agents have forged a path toward corporate travel.
To give you a couple examples, I chatted with some agents regarding their background and entry into the corporate travel industry. So let's get to it!
Mike Edic | President/Owner of Pioneer Travel
How did you get your start as a corporate travel agent?
"I’ve been a corporate travel agent for 23 years. I worked for Carlson for 15 years. Way back in the dark ages, I did go to travel agency school. When I graduated from school, I worked for the airline for 5 years. That tied me into the corporate side of things."
On the benefits of working as a home-based corporate agent:
"Working from home, I’m able to make decisions for clients. With big agencies, they don’t get that one-on-one. A lot of my clients I’ve become friends with. You’ve got that personal service. I know what they want, where they want to stay. A smaller agency can give you that one-on-one service.
Being a small agency . . . that’s my bottom line. I wanted to be my own boss. I liked dealing with the clients and I liked knowing that I could provide the type of service that they needed provided to them. Whereas with corporate, they're all red tape, the call centers."
On the challenges of getting started:
"I had [my] corporate clients built in [when I started]. With a new corporate agent who doesn’t have that built in clientele, it takes awhile because they don’t know who you are. Big corporations are afraid to start with smaller agencies. I have a chief support system behind me, and he offers us reporting for our tickets, last minute bookings, he can tell us where our travelers are. Basically, they knew what I could offer them. That’s hard starting out because nobody knows who you are."
Tips for corporate agents just starting out:
"Put yourself in the client's shoes and treat them the way you’d want to be treated if you were in their shoes. Make sure that the travel part of things will not stress them out. The one thing they don’t have to worry about is their travel.
Business travelers are people too and they want to be treated with respect, not just a number . . . if the traveler is successful, then I’m successful. If they're not, then I’m not doing my job."
Terri Coon | Owner of Hyland Travel
How did you get your start as a corporate travel agent?
"I moved back to Denver and lived with my sister for a little while and was pounding the pavement looking for a job. I got a job working for an after-hours travel service. It was called 4/24. At 4/24 we didn’t deal with any leisure people at all. It was just corporate travelers calling in after hours. It was all corporate travel that we dealt with. In 5 years I moved up to operations manager.
At one point while I was working there, I had to learn a total of 7 GDS’s. They put you through 2 weeks of training and that was like your introduction on all the GDSs."
What are traits of an ideal corporate client?
"A company that has and adheres to a travel policy. A company that has up to 2,000 employees total (not all of them are going to travel, obviously). Small companies.
I have one big account out in MD. They have another office in MI and in Longmont, CO. and I do their travel for them. I did not want to put all my eggs in one basket but that’s how it happened. I have a few others too. In the last 6 months, I’ve been getting a lot of business for leisure travel.
It’s nice to have a corporate client that understands how a travel management company can help them. They need to understand where I can help them and need to want to understand too. And I’ve found that companies typically tend to put travel on the back burner because they don’t understand it."
On the difference between booking leisure and corporate:
"I find that leisure agents can’t stand doing corporate travel and corporate agents can’t stand doing leisure travel. Corporate is cut and dry, and you’re not playing with people’s personal money. I can book a trip in 60 sec. But if you’re booking someone’s personal trip it can take hours of research.
I’m working on one (around the world trip) right now where the guy is going from Boston to France to Switzerland . . . and I’ve used different vendors for each section of the trip. It’s been fun working on it!"
What do you look for in a host agency if you want to go into corporate travel?
"Three words. Support, support, support. I’ve had two host agencies. [With my first host agency] I was one of the few that did corporate travel and the itineraries that I would send out to my clients looked like a 5th grader typed them up. I needed some more technology.
I started looking around at other hosts and then I saw Andavo and met with Kiersten and looked at their website and it was everything I wanted and more. Sometimes I feel like the red headed stepchild, and not just with my host but with all of travel. Because ASTA, they cater to leisure agents. NACTA, they cater to leisure agents too. So I kind of pick and choose webinars and stuff like that . . . I think it would be so, so hard for a new agent to get into corporate travel. It’s so limited out there for training or anything."
Torey Edgcomb | Luxury Travel Advisor at Casto Travel
As a primarily leisure agent, how did you begin attracting corporate clients?
"I really started getting into doing corporate—and it’s only a small portion of my business right now—but for smaller [corporate] accounts that did not want to sign a formal contract, and, you know, have a whole pod of agents assigned to them, Casto would refer them over to our leisure department. The leisure agents have the choice to work exclusively with the smaller corporate accounts either with themselves or a few other people. And so I got a few clients that way and also from an independent contractor colleague who retired. She did some small corporate accounts and she passed them on to me.
That was the two original ways. Additionally, I spent a lot of time working with people who are executives or maybe consultants who really work for themselves or maybe have a few employees, I would do their leisure travel. As we got to know each other, I realized they were doing a lot of corporate or even incentive group travel as well. I said I’d be happy to help with that because they were seeing the benefits of working with me via leisure travel. So I got into it that way as well."
What did the learning curve look like as you began to book corporate in addition to leisure?
"For every company [the approval process] is different and sometimes they haven’t worked with a travel agent before. So at the beginning it was a learning process on explaining up front how it worked. An employee will come to me directly and I will quote them information and be ready to book. They say, 'oh, well I need approval from this person,' and this person will call you with the credit card, and it took multiple days to get the air booked and by that point, the price had changed.
So the first thing was just, okay, up front I need to create a corporate account profile: who are the lead people who I will be coordinating with. Who’s in charge of the finances? What sort of accounting and invoicing do they need from me? Also who is the approver for travel and budget because you’ll quote somebody something and they’ll want a better flight time or a better seat and that costs more money, so it’s just making sure that we’re on the same page up front.
With larger corporations, they have that already set up. It’s the smaller ones that usually haven’t thought of that before. I’d say the first thing is being very firm up front about the process, how it works and what I need, and then asking them what they’ll need from me so we can go into it knowing exactly what both sides need."
What type of education resources did you benefit from for corporate travel?
"We have all the vendors that we work with—air, hotels, tours, transfers or travel insurance—they do sales calls--come into our office. If it’s a bigger hotel or airline, their sales will be separated into leisure and corporate."
What advice do you have for travel agents who want to break into corporate travel?
"It’s very important to first speak with other agents who have gone through it. When I first started doing it, I wasn’t well-prepared on how to educate the corporate accounts I was working with. Because they were new to working with travel agents, things kept coming up that we didn’t have a process in place and it delayed the whole booking process. It wasn’t as smooth in the beginning as it could have been. But they were understanding, and they were also new to working with a travel agent.
I was up front that I mostly did leisure but was happy to work with them on corporate and that it would be a work in progress and both sides had to communicate on what changes either side needed to make. It would have made it more efficient and easy to organize and handle if I had gone to other agents who did leisure and went into corporate and said, 'what are the key things I need to be up front about or processes I need to have in place before I start booking the travel?"
Key Takeaways (and a Little Motivation)
While becoming a corporate travel agent is a more circuitous, unpaved route, it's by no means impossible! It just takes the tenacity and entrepreneurial mojo that attracted you to the travel industry in the first place. So here's a redux of different inroads into becoming a corporate travel agent:
- Enroll in a GDS training program: GDS training programs won't guarantee you a corporate travel job. But it can be a good way to learn one of the primary skills you'll need to become a corporate agent. That way when you see a job opportunity that says "Sabre training a plus," you'll be among one of those more desirable candidates.
- Apply for an entry-level corporate travel agent job: Larger corporate travel agencies like BCD understand the Catch-22 of becoming a travel agent. Not only that, but they have the resources to train employees in booking air. It's a perfect way to prime you for jobs that require more corporate travel experience (or to start your own home based corporate travel agency).
- Network with established corporate agents: Mike, Terri and Torey provided a wealth of resources, and what's included in this article only scratches the surface to the depths of their wisdom. Ask a corporate agent if you can shadow them for a few hours or even a few days. Maybe you can even do some "simple" work for them in exchange for mentorship.
- Choose a host agency that supports corporate travel agents: Even if you are starting out selling leisure travel, you can tell a host up front that you would like to become a corporate travel agent at some point. Some hosts might be willing to train you in GDS down the road or provide other resources to get you closer to where you want to be professionally.
These are just a few steps you can take to become a corporate travel agent. Are you feeling empowered and motivated? I hope so! If not, here's a little something to help boost your mojo!
Our Call Center Is Open
Just kidding. We don't have one of those. But we DO want to hear from you! Are you a corporate travel agent? How did you get your foot in the door? What resources have been in valuable to you as a corporate agent? Please comment below!