13 NOV 2017: I have a confession to make: I am not the most organized person in the world. On a good day my desk looks as though a whirlwind has just blown through my office. On a bad day – well, let’s not go there.  

But I have a few things going for me: I know my away around the world (a fascination and passion cultivated in part by my high-school Geography and History teachers back in South Africa in the 1960’s), and I have an odd memory for small stuff. I will sometimes get a call that goes something like this: “you probably won’t remember me, but about 15 years ago you booked me and my fiancée to Europe…” and I will respond “…and you stayed at that inn near Aix-en-Provence, the place with the fountains. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it…”

There’ll be a beat or two, and then the caller will say in amazement “You remember that?”

Frankly I don’t know how I do it, but it burnishes my professional image. Over the years we all develop a little something that makes us look good at what we do.

I was thinking about that the other evening. My wife, Kim, and I had been invited to a presentation by a higher-end US-based tour operator. It was held at a downtown Toronto hotel where the doorman smiles and holds the door open and hands you your valet parking ticket. (Personally, I can’t afford to stay at places like that but I book a lot of rooms at that level)

The presentation hall was filled mostly with independent agents who typically deal in that higher end market. I’m fortunate enough to work in that bracket too. I’m not by any means putting down 3½-star “all-inclusive-fly-and-flop” vacations to the Dominican Republic or Cuba – there’s a market for everyone.

When I started in the industry 25 years ago I worked in an agency where we sold consolidated tickets to India and East Africa for $5 below net. Clients crossed the street to the competition to save a couple of dollars. (How we were supposed to achieve sales bonus territory at net-minus-$5 I never did figure out, but I learned the fundamentals of our trade and I will always be grateful for that).

But the one thing that struck me about the people in that room at that presentation was the amount of grey hair. On some heads the grey dominated, on some heads it was salt-and-peppered in with the original colour, and on some heads it was carefully disguised with contents of a little box from the neighbourhood pharmacy. I counted maximum half a dozen younger people there – out of perhaps 200 agents.

It saddened me somewhat, I must say.

Despite the best efforts of the internet influencers, there is a growing demand for people like us. We know the stuff that travellers need, we save them having to research it themselves, we have the connections to make the trip special. But let’s face it, there are fewer and fewer of us around.

My friend Jean, for instance, had been in the trade forever. We used to joke that when Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, Jean arranged their passage across the Red Sea, probably using the OAG (in hieroglyphics) for guidance.

Jean lived in Africa, and India and Europe. She went to China before China opened up to Western tourism. She went to Tibet before people went to Tibet. When Jean passed away suddenly a couple of years ago a colleague remarked that it was as though a library had burned down.

I’m not saying that there is no new blood coming into our trade. I’m saying that there is not enough of it; not enough younger people who are fascinated by the world and want to share that fascination; not enough people who want to go beyond selling a generic product from a call center.

Two years ago I had a call from Annie, the niece of a major corporate client. Annie asked if I’d mind having a cup of coffee with her. She had just graduated from university. She wanted to get into travel. Could I give her any advice or direction?

We talked a while. Should she go to travel school? I didn’t think so. Should she take a job at a tour operator call center to learn the basics? Not in my opinion. Was there a future for her in the travel trade? Absolutely!

I introduced her to the manager of my agency. Lucy took Annie on as an intern for three months. Then one of the independent contractors in the agency employed her as an assistant, working on the basis of “you work for me part time, I will mentor you and teach you what I know. The rest of the time you build up your book of business”.

The relationship works. Annie is succeeding. And travelling.

There are lots of Annies out there. Just as there are thousands of potential clients who will always turn to a professional for making their travel arrangements perfect.

Our generation’s challenge?

Finding those Annies and mentoring them. They are the future of our profession. They’re the guardians of the knowledge that we have accumulated. They will ensure that the library, like Jean’s, doesn’t burn down.





Derrick Bloch

A regular contributer to Travel Industry Today, Derrick has been recognized by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 80 travel agents in North America. 

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