The Independent Travel Agent Income Report, 2021
Host Agency Reviews has conducted an annual travel agent survey since 2016. The results of HAR’s 2021 survey offer an opportunity to look at income trends among an advisor subset that the Bureau of Labor and Statistics doesn’t include in their reporting: independent travel advisors.
The results of HAR’s 2021 survey offer an opportunity to look at income trends among an advisor subset that the Bureau of Labor and Statistics doesn’t include in their reporting: independent travel advisors.
This year, over 1,100 travel advisors filled out our survey. In this report, we’re going to look at income among independent travel advisors. What does it mean to be independent? We consider independent advisors those who have their own accreditation (rather than exclusively using a host agency, or selling travel as a travel agent employee).
However, advisors within the independent subset are far from cookie cutter. Some independent advisors have dozens or hundreds of ICs or employees, and some work solo. Some are home-based and some own storefronts. Some are hosted in addition to having their own accreditation, and some also own franchises.
While our 2021 Travel Agent COVID Report details COVID's industry impact, the findings in this year's report detail its aftershocks destabilized income potential and shifted business among independent advisors.
Here’s what we'll cover:
⭐️ HAR Article Highlights: ⭐️
- The 2021 independent Travel Agent Infographic: A visual look at the data
- Summary of independent Travel Agent Income
- Independent Travel Agent Income & Hours Worked
- Did Independent Advisors Sell Travel as a Primary Source of Income?
- Independent Travel Agent Income & Years of Experience
- Independent Travel Agent Income & Niche
- What Products Did Independent Agents Sell?
- Independent Travel Agent Income Breakdown
- Industry Engagement and Independent Travel Agent Income
- Independent Travel Agent Income, by Region
- Key Takeaways
The Independent Travel Agent Report, Infographic
Our infographic below visualizes some of the data we'll cover!
Summary of Independent Travel Agent Income
This year, HAR used median income instead of average income. Why did we switch it up after so many years? According to our data analyst Dr. Maga Gei, “the median offers a more reliable look at what independent advisors were likely to make during the reporting year because it's not affected by extreme values.” (Especially within the context of a pandemic.)
With that in mind, survey data indicated that median income for full-time independent advisors dropped to a low of $3,100 in 2020.
Independent advisors who worked full time earned 3x more than independent advisors overall, $3,100 compared to $1,020.
Despite this precipitous decline in income, COVID did not shift trends in earning potential as work hours increased. Independent advisors who worked full time earned three times more than independent advisors overall ($3,100 compared to $1,020, respectively).
The graph below offers an income overview for part-time and full-time independent advisors, including the median income decrease between 2019 and 2020.
In 2020, median income dropped 92% for part-time advisors, and 94% for full-time advisors between 2019 and 2020.1
Independent Travel Agent Income & Hours Worked
Before the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, 78% of independent advisors sold travel full time. During the pandemic, however, the percentage of full-time advisors dropped a precipitous 51 points to 27%. Here’s a visual:
Did Independent Advisors Sell Travel as a Primary Source of Income?
In 2020, before the pandemic outbreak, 73% of independent advisors sold travel as a primary source of income. This is a higher percentage than in 2019 when only 67% reported selling travel as a primary source of income.
During the pandemic, the percentage of independent advisors selling travel as a primary source of income dropped 19 points from 73% to 54%.
During the pandemic, the percentage of independent advisors selling travel as a primary source of income dropped 19 points from 73% to 54%. The graph below illustrates COVID’s impact on independent advisors:
MOST INDEPENDENT ADVISORS PLAN TO RETURN TO SELLING AS A PRIMARY SOURCE OF INCOME:
Zero respondents answered no to the question, "Do you intend to resume selling travel as a primary source of income?"
Remarkably, zero respondents answered no to the question, "Do you intend to resume selling travel as a primary source of income?"2 The vast majority (78%) of independent advisors who stopped selling travel as their primary source of income during the pandemic plan to resume selling at a pre-covid volume, and 20% responded that they were unsure.
The chart below illustrates independent advisors’ intent to return to selling travel as a primary source of income.3
Independent Travel Agent Income & Years of Experience
The median experience among independent advisors profiled in this report is 15 years. This is higher than 2019 when the median experience of independent advisors was 13 years.
The chart below details median income by experience level:
Advisors typically earn more income as they gain experience. However, in pandemic times, advisors with 15+ experience earned the lowest median income. It’s also important to note that, statistically, the 15+ years experience category received the highest response rate and is more representative of the data overall.
Independent Travel Agent Income & Niche
In 2020 72% of independent advisors had a niche and 20% were generalists.4
Excluding generalists, the top three niches in 2020 were:
- Groups: 13%
- Weddings & Honeymoons: 10%
- Luxury & Destination Specialist: 9%
Below the graph illustrates how agents responded when asked about their specialty:
WHAT NICHES EARNED THE MOST INCOME FOR INDEPENDENT ADVISORS?
Below are the top three income-earning niches in 2020:
- Weddings & Honeymoons, $11,700
- River Cruises, $9,000
- Disney, $5,755
Weddings and Honeymoons was far and away the top-earning niche in 2020. With its appeal as a domestic destination (for US travelers) that was open for the majority of 2020. Disney made its first appearance on the list of the top three highest income earners.5
Below is a complete look of income by niche among the categories we received a high enough response rate:6
What Products Did Independent Agents Sell?
In our survey we ask, “which travel product do you sell the most of?” In 2020, agents cited all-inclusives as their most common product sold at 35% (This was also the top product for hosted travel advisors.)
In addition to all-inclusives, here are the top three travel products independent agents reported selling in our 2021 survey:
- All-Inclusives (35%)
- Tours and Packages (14%)
- FIT (12%)
Below you can find a complete list of travel products sold and the percentage of independent agents who reported it was their top product sold:
In a typical (non-pandemic) year, cruises land in the top three products sold for independent advisors. However, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) implemented a “No Sail” order, which resulted in a significant drop in cruise bookings.
MEDIAN INCOME BY PRODUCT DURING COVID
Some types of products were more resilient to the pandemic. The top three median incomes by product most sold were:
- All-Inclusives, $3,600
- FITs, $1,615
- Airlines, $900
Below is a fuller look at independent travel agent income by top product sold in 2020: 7.
Independent Travel Agent Income Breakdown
We combined four income streams to tally overall income. Here's our secret sauce:
Overall Travel Agent Income = Commissions + Service Fees + Consultation Fees + Other Industry Related Income (e.g. coaching or speaking).
Below is an overview of what kind of fees independent advisors charged in 2020 (We will explore this exact distribution more in our fee surveys, so stay tuned!)8:
COVID eroded the typical landscape of earning potential, with advisors reporting in the 2021 survey that fees and other income comprised a much higher percentage of overall earnings compared to commissions.
Below the graph illustrates median incomes by each of the four revenue streams, comparing it to last year’s medians. (The service fees, consultation fees, and other categories included only advisors who reported income from that specific revenue stream).
BOOKING VOLUME FROM WEBSITE BOOKING ENGINES
11% of independent advisors reported having a booking engine on their websites. Year after year, what we find is bookings from online booking engines are negligible and this year was no different.
Among agents who reported having a booking engine on their site, 80% reported they yielded no bookings via this channel. The graph below illustrates the entire breakdown:
Agency Models of Independent Travel Agents
How do independent agents run their business and how does it impact income? In this section, we’ll take a peek at whether or not agency location (home-based vs. storefront) correlated with higher income.
Additionally, we’ll also look at how many independent agents have independent contractors (ICs) and/or employees.
HOW MANY INDEPENDENT AGENTS WERE ALSO HOSTED?
Among independent agents, 12% were also hosted in addition to having their own accreditation. This is lower than last year when 30% of independent agents were also hosted.
WHICH ACCREDITATIONS DID INDEPENDENT ADVISORS HAVE IN 2020?
Overall, the top three accreditations were:
- CLIA: 34%
- IATAN non-ticketing: 30%
- IATA ticketing: 26%
Below, the graph depicts a breakdown of which accreditations independent advisors had in 2020:
HOME-BASED OR STOREFRONT AGENCIES?
A higher percentage of independent advisors reported having storefront agencies in 2020 compared to 2019, 26% compared to 16% respectively. In 2020, the majority of independent advisors, 74%, were home-based.
In a reversal of last year's results, home-based independent advisors earned 77% more income on average than storefront agencies.9 The image below compares median income among home-based advisors and storefront agency owners:
Over half of storefront agencies earned no income during the pandemic in 2020 (hence, their $0 median income levels depicted on the graph). However, the interquartile range among this segment was $60-$48,000.
Our survey also asked advisors about sales loss (personal sales and agency-wide sales) in the wake of the pandemic outbreak.
The graph below compares home-based and storefront individual sales loss in 2020:
However, when we look at agency sales (opposed to individual sales) storefronts were more likely to report a high percentage of sales loss. When looking at sales on an agency level, our data indicated that storefront agency owners were harder hit by the pandemic than their home-based peers:
Compared to home-based agencies, storefronts registered 18 points higher for losing 61-80% of sales, and 26 points higher for losing 81-100% of sales.
Since storefronts are more likely to have a higher volume of employees and ICs before the pandemic and may have had to downsize during the pandemic, it’s more likely that the cumulative drop in sales will be more dramatic.
INCOME FOR INDEPENDENT AGENTS WITH EMPLOYEES AND/OR ICS
56% of independent advisors had ICs and/or employees in 2020. Below is a breakdown of what percentage of independent agents reported having ICs and/or employees:
Agencies with both ICs and employees earned the highest median income, banking 109% more than solo advisors. Those with ICs only earned nearly 56% more.
Agencies with employees-only were hardest hit, with a $0 median income. If you’re doing a double-take at a $0 median income, you’re not alone. 2020 was an unusual year. If you didn’t get into selling travel for your love of statistics it may be a minor comfort to know that the median is $0 because more than half of agencies with employees only earned no income during the pandemic.
HOW MANY ICS AND EMPLOYEES DID INDEPENDENT AGENCIES HAVE?
Independent agencies report a broad range when it comes to the volume of ICs and employees. Below, we list the range and median of ICs as well as FT and PT employees:
EMPLOYEE RETENTION AMONG INDEPENDENT ADVISORS
Many advisors with employees deferred to furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic. However, 63% of advisors with employees reported making no layoffs in 2020.
Among agencies who did lay off employees, 47% was the median workforce reduction.
Industry Engagement and Independent Travel Agent Income
79% of independent advisors reported belonging to at least one association. The top 3 associations among independent advisors were:
- ASTA, 34%
- CLIA, 25%
- CCRA, 13%
Here’s the complete breakdown of what associations independent advisors belonged to:
CERTIFICATION RATES AMONG INDEPENDENT AGENTS
69% of independent advisors reported having at least one travel certification. The top three certifications in 2020 were:
- Destination/ Vendor Specialist: 29%
- ACC (through CLIA): 10%
- CTA (through the Travel Institute): 9%
Below is a complete breakdown of which certification independent advisors received in 2020.
Attaining a certification also had a positive impact on income for independent advisors. Those who earned at least one certification earned 37% more income than those who hadn’t received any certifications.
Independent Travel Agent Income, by Region
While commissions are influenced by different factors, regionality isn't one of them: An agent who sells Disney in MN is going to get the same commission as the agent who sells Disney from NY (even if rent is 3x the cost).
In 2020, the top-earning regions were:
- Heartland ($22,680)
- Midwest ($18,589)
- Appalachia ($13,979)
Here’s the complete breakdown of median income by region:
Regional income has not been consistent from year to year. Do the regional findings seem accurate in comparison to your income? If these numbers aren’t reflective of what you earned, we’d love for you to participate in next year’s survey!
How about that, we take the notes for you! Here are some of the highlights from our 2021 Independent Travel Agent Report:
Independent advisors who worked full time earned 3x more than independent advisors overall, $3,100 compared to $1,020.
Before the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, 78% of independent advisors sold travel full time. During the pandemic however, the percentage of full-time advisors dropped a precipitous 51 points to 27%.
- During the pandemic, the percentage of independent advisors selling travel as a primary source of income dropped 19 points from 73% to 54%.
- 72% of independent advisors had a niche and 20% were generalists. Additionally, Weddings and Honeymoons was the top-earning niche that year.
- In 2020, all-inclusives were the most common primary product sold at 35%
- 44% of independent advisors charged a service and/or consultation fee in 2020. 56% charged no fees.
- 12% of independent advisors were also hosted in addition to having their own accreditation. This is lower than 2019, when 30% of independent agents were also hosted.
- Advisors with both ICs and employees earned the highest median income, banking 109% more than solo advisors.
- 79% of independent advisors reported belonging to at least one association and 69% reported having at least one certification.
Data Is the Gift that Keeps on Giving . . . Stay Tuned
Um. Wow. That was pretty thrilling. If you're as excited by this data as the HAR crew, then you're definitely in the right industry!!!! We are cooking up other great information including a report on new-to-industry agents, a demographic report, and travel agency employees!
Don't forget to sign up for HAR's free newsletter to get the next report right to your inbox!
A Huge THANK YOU
Not gonna lie. The thank-you section of this report could be longer than the report itself (31 pages up to this point, but who’s counting? 🙋🏻♀️)
Thank you so much to the HAR crew who mind-meld, collaborate, and talk me off ledges as I panic over deadlines and data. Not to wax sentimental, but y’all are my chosen family when it comes to colleagues . . . I’m looking at you, April Oliveira (marketing queen and creators of all graphs and images), Dr. Maga Gei (who I fondly refer to as our “data whisperer”), Steph Lee (does she even need an intro?), and Maureen Bourcy (who’s patience and insights bring my blood pressure down in ten seconds flat . . . even on video chat).
A colossal thank you to these travel organizations: American Society of Travel Advisors, Association of Black Travel Professionals, CCRA, Destination Wedding Honeymoon Specialist Association, Ensemble Travel Group, Gifted Travel Network, Nexion Travel Group, Outside Agents, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Travel Quest Network, Travel Leaders Network, Travel Pulse, and Travel Research Online.
The Method to Our Madness
Overall, 1,098 advisors responded to our 2021 Travel Agent Survey.
This report profiles independent advisors with 3+ years of selling travel. 624 respondents met our criteria to be included in this particular report.
Is the concept of a host agency new to you? I highly recommend you check out this article, "What Is a Host Agency," which will give you a foundation on what HAR is all about.
THE NITTY GRITTY
We know some of you may be seriously loving our data and looking for a few more details on the process.
Here's an overview of how we arrived at our numbers:
- In a departure from previous reports, this year we tallied median independent advisors' median income rather than average income. Median offers a more reliable look at what independent advisors were likely to make during the reporting year.
- Respondent data is from 2020: HAR’s travel agent survey was conducted between June 1st and July 31st of 2021. Advisors used their annual 2020 income numbers to complete our survey.
- Outliers were removed. In a typical year, we only include advisors who earn a minimum of $500 in income. However, as 2020 was an exceptional year, this report also includes those who earn $0-$500, with a few extreme outliers removed. (If you made $80,000,000 during a pandemic then holy moly! Go you! But for report purposes, we’ll go ahead and assume that’s an error.)
- We round to the nearest percent or dollar. What can I say? It's easier on the eyes when you're wading through so much data. (Sorry, decimal points. We still love you.)
A Glossary of Terms
- Interquartile Range (IQ): A typical "range" shows us the lowest and highest fee. But the interquartile range helps us remove outliers in order to get a clearer picture of moderate fee-charging practices. For those really nerding out, the Interquartile Range measures the range between the 25th and 75th% percentile. This means the IQ range excludes the data from the lowest 25% and the highest 25%, eliminating the lower and upper outliers.
- Median: The median is the middle value in the set of numbers. (That’s right, the middle child of data!) We are beginning to use median to look at income as we . This helped us get a clearer picture of the “average” agent, by eliminating outliers that skew the data.
- Median Range: When we offer a median range the numbers reflect the spread between the most common lowest fee and the most common highest fee reported by our respondents in our survey.
- Mode: The mode is the number that appears most often in a set of numbers. For our purposes, it means that it was the most frequently-occurring response among travel agents who answered the question. We used mode to determine the most common amount charged for certain service fees, in order to give a clearer picture of what the “typical” agent is most likely to charge.
- HAR recalculated 2019 income to derive median income, rather than the averages, which is the data we reported in 2020 ↩
- This segment includes only those who reported they stopped selling travel as a primary source of income after the coronavirus outbreak. ↩
- The numbers in the graph don’t compute to 100% because for 2%, the response was “not applicable” ↩
- 8% were non-selling independent advisors, responding N/A ↩
- Disney World began closing its resorts on March 16th, 2020. On June 22nd, they began to reopen a few of their resorts, and by July 11th, 2020, they began a phased reopening of theme parks. (Source) ↩
- Categories that didn’t receive a high enough response for a reliable income median were River Cruises, Disney, Adventure Travel, Corporate Travel, Accessible Travel, LGBTQ+, Heritage Travel, MICE, Wellness Travel, Romance Travel, Write-Ins. ↩
- The “other” category includes those with a response rate too low to calculate a reliable income average, including travel insurance (3%), river cruises (2.5%), car rentals (.4%), and Disney (0%) ↩
- The chart only includes independent advisors who sold travel. In 2020, 8% of respondents were non-selling advisors ↩
- In 2019, storefront advisors earned 1.5x more than home-based advisors. ↩