The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be a need for 8,300 more travel agents by the year 2020, on top of the nearly 83,000 now working to plan vacations and business trips for individuals, families and corporate travelers. The median annual salary is $31,870.
Columbus native Donner Comer is among the veterans of the industry, having opened her own agency in 1984 inside extra space in a downtown building used by her grandfather's business, Harvey's Shoe and Brace.
Today, Travels by Donna has a staff of four in the Columbus Historic District at 501 Broadway. It's there that Comer and her travel agents book flights, cruises and cross-country jaunts for people looking for a dream honeymoon or a getaway from the daily grind.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with her recently about the job, why she does it and a few of the trends in travel these days.
What attracted you to this profession?
I'm a people person. I love dealing with the people that come in. There's nothing the same -- ever -- in our day. One moment I could be working on somebody going to China. Five minutes later, I'll be sending somebody else to New York. So every day is totally different, and every phone call and everybody that walks in is different.
How has the occupation changed through the years?
When I started, we basically hand-wrote tickets and we used a (travel planner) book called the OAG. We would open that book and route you from destination A to destination B. We would look at say, from Atlanta to Chicago, and it would give us all of the times and flight numbers. We would pick whichever flight, and there were pretty basic tariffs back then, and we would write out the ticket for the person.
It was very manual. We didn't have computers. We used a tele-ticketing machine that was hooked up to the airlines. We would book (a flight) and get a confirmation number, and in five or 10 minutes the ticket would print on the machine.
Computers have made life easier?
Computers have made it a lot easier. And the Internet, believe it or not, has not hurt us. It's helped us because the majority of the (travel and destination) information now is on the Internet. Clients come to us more prepared. They are more knowledgeable. Instead of us having to do all of the work, they know a little bit more about what they want.
Even when you've got a client who doesn't use you, they realize how fortunate they are to have a travel agent after they have just used the Internet. That's because it takes a long time. There also are a lot of mistakes that can be made. For example, if you're booking a cruise, you need to know what type of passport or documentation is required. They'll call us and we can't help them if they've booked it on their own. After they've done that once or twice, they usually don't do it anymore.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate the profession isn't going away?
No, it's not. We stay very busy. Besides myself, we've got a staff of three others in-house. And then we've got outside agents in different areas of the country. I've got about five doing that. So we've seen a lot of growth.
I work literally about seven days a week and 11 hours a day this time of year. Then I slow down a little bit at the end of March. But I'm constantly on call. People call me everywhere I go. And the office is a full-service office. We do airline tickets and everything.
This is a hectic season for you?
This is a busy season because we're coming up on spring and we have people who have gotten engaged or are getting married, people who are planning honeymoons and destination weddings. It is extremely busy with all of that. We've also got the bride shows that we do and that keeps us really busy.
What's one of the more popular honeymoon destinations now?
A lot of people really like the all-inclusive packages. Because of the all-inclusive feature, it's mainly in the Caribbean. You've got Jamaica, Aruba, Cancun, Cozumel and Costa Rica. I would probably say Jamaica is a top seller for us.
Cruises are all-inclusive, right?
Except for the alcohol and the cola drinks. But the shows on the boat are included, as well as the food.
What kind of skills are needed to be a travel agent?
When I earned my trade association title -- certified travel consultant -- I had to take various classes and then have a proctor give me the test. That was years ago. Now they actually have schools. I know Columbus Tech has a program on travel. Several schools offer associate degrees. But it's great to work with someone and get hands-on training.
You obviously have to like people. We have Wynnton Hardware and Chapman's (Thrift Mall), and on weekends during the holidays, I will help my husband over at the hardware store, and run the cash register. Everything I'm working on, whether it's here at the agency or at the stores, I'm around people. So it's totally retail.
Salesmanship is a good quality to have?
It is. One of the things we do a lot is constantly send quotes to people. So if you tell me you want to go to Cancun, I'm pretty knowledgeable in that area. I can tell people which hotels to avoid and which ones to go to. And if I don't know it, I've got good reps that can tell me.
People think that travel agents have loads of fun and get to sample trips and destinations all the time. Is that the case?
We do get to travel and go see places. But the funny thing is when people come and apply for a job, the first thing they say is they love to travel. Well, you're too busy working in this job to go travel a lot because you have to be on site to work. Yes, we do get great benefits. But taking the time off to enjoy them is another thing.
How has the economy impacted the profession?
The economy has affected everybody. It's affected my personal life and our (other retail) businesses, of course. But our business here at the agency has stayed strong. We really have not seen a recession at the agency, which is a good thing.
Are you sensing people are more apt to travel now and loosening up a bit?
I think the reason we haven't seen a recession in the agency is because people are so stressed and so exhausted that (a vacation) is one thing they look forward to doing every year. So they're budgeting.
Most of our packages that we've got require a small deposit, and then you can pay on it. We have people who actually book trips about a year in advance ... they put a small deposit down and then they'll call me every week or every other week and put money on it. So they're not feeling it, and they've got so much to look forward to that it's pretty exciting.
Of course, that's what makes it so wonderful to get up everyday and come to work. We truly have wonderful clients. They're very loyal and have traveled with us for years. They're like family. When we're working on their weddings or their honeymoons or a family trip, it's real special to us to be able to do that.
Is your bread and butter business individual travel or corporate work?
We have a mix here in this office. We have a lot of corporate accounts still. I would say it's probably about 50-50 ... They still have to travel in the business world. And one thing about using us is we are very cost conscious and we watch every single thing.
So if we've got a businessman or woman who calls us and says they want to go to Dallas, and want to go on a first-class ticket on a specific date, well, we know the contract and the rules that their accounting department have given us. We have to turn it into accounting for approval. And we don't just give you the highest price. We search until we find the lowest price offered in that market.
Are Columbus-area residents a bunch of traveling folks?
They travel all the time. We're right here close to the (Florida) panhandle. With our weather -- we had 70-degree temperatures last week -- it makes everyone want to plan their trip.
And there are few agencies left anymore that you can walk in and feel like you're in a business instead of a home. We try to give them that comfort level, so that when they give us their money and depend on us to plan that trip, we're doing everything in our power to make it the best trip they've ever had.
Name: Donna Anderson Comer
Current residence: Columbus
Education: Graduated Columbus High School in 1977; attended Auburn University and Columbus State University; certified travel counselor by the Travel Institute CTC; Delta Vacations Star Agent; luxury travel specialist
Jobs: Has operated Travels By Donna since 1984; is co-owner of Chapman's Thrift Mall and Wynnton Hardware
Family: Husband, Frank Comer, who is co-owner of Wynnton Hardware and Chapman's Thrift Mall; daughter Samantha Wright, a Pharm D (doctor of pharmacy) candidate at Auburn University; son Robert Wright, manager of Chapman's Thrift Mall; daughter Anne Laurie Comer, a junior at Columbus High School
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with family, traveling, gardening, bicycle riding, reading and attending church
Of note: Past Parent Teacher Association president at Richards Middle School; past Springer Opera Guild president; past Symphony Guild board member; past American Heart Association board member; past member of Columbus High Local School Council; past volunteer with Sara Spano Clothing Bank; member of the Junior League of Columbus