Tourism operators seeking experience

By Steve Hart

Skills shortages in sector when it comes to experienced people and those able to make visitors feel comfortable.

Evan Freshwater (in black) says there are gaps in adventure tourism activities such as rafting and skydiving.
Evan Freshwater (in black) says there are gaps in adventure tourism activities such as rafting and skydiving.

There's a world of opportunity for people wanting to work in the travel and tourism industries - but it's a competitive field with only those with qualifications, experience, a passion for people and the right mix of soft skills likely to do well.

However, Tony Laskey, regional director sales and marketing of travel firm Contiki, says these people are not as easy to find as he'd like.

"A lot of what is being taught in tertiary institutions is more the technical skills, and we find some people - particularly recent graduates - lack soft skills," he says.

He cites this as one of the reasons his firm won't employ anyone unless they have work experience or have travelled. He says New Zealand's inbound travel industry needs people who can relate to holidaymakers from all over the world and make them feel comfortable.

"We look for people with university qualifications rather than a general travel and tourism qualification," says Laskey. "But saying that, if you have a college tourism diploma then it helps - it would give you a foot in the door at somewhere such as a bungy jump operation.

"With our bus tour managers we don't employ people straight out of travel and tourism colleges, we like to see they have travelled themselves first - to get some experience and learn those soft skills. It is almost something that can't be taught."

So long as people have the right people skills, the rest can be picked up along the way, says Laskey. He says tour buses can have around 50 people on them, "so it is a demanding job to manage that number of visitors and keep the coach on schedule".

Laskey says there are plenty of opportunities for people looking for their first job in the tourism industry - from roles in reservations to manning the desk at adventure operations.

"Beyond that, plenty of people go into sales roles where they go out to promote their particular product to inbound tour operators," he says.

"Then they might move up to director of sales or move to work in a hotel."

Evan Freshwater is an industry advocate at the Tourism Industry Association and spent 10 years as a raft guide. He agrees with Laskey and says skills shortages exist when it comes to experienced people in sectors, such as tourism guides.

He also says there are gaps in adventure tourism activities such as rafting and skydiving.

Freshwater says too many people are doing tourism courses without really understanding the "nuts and bolts" of the industry.

"They have this ideal job in their mind, but no real practical experience with tourism," he says.

"They arrive to their first job with industry knowledge, but would have never met a customer before."

Freshwater says while there is a huge amount of training available, passion for the industry should come before anything else.

"People who have passions for certain activities such as whitewater kayaking, bird watching or tramping, should keep a log of what they have done and where they did it - this would be excellent to show to a prospective employer," he says. "That's what an operator would look for - passion and experience."

Tourism workers also need to be culturally aware, says Freshwater, with the days of shouting in a bid to be understood by a non-English speaker long gone.

"Knowing how to communicate with different cultures and understanding that different cultures have different expectations is valuable," he says.

"If someone learns Mandarin then it is going to help them - there are operators who will find that useful.

"Tourist operators are not looking for youth, they are looking for the right person. If someone has a business degree, little industry experience, but likes people, then they could get a career in tourism.

"Something our association has done is engage with industry leaders to define career pathways for people, because we know that if we can retain someone in tourism - irrespective of what company they work for - the skills they pick up through a variety of tourism roles makes them more valuable," Freshwater says.

"Some people work for one operator during the summer, and then another during winter, before returning to the firm that employed them in the summer. That is the type of thing we are working on as an industry."

Freshwater says there are few geographic limitations when it comes to working in tourism, but it is a job for people with high levels of self-confidence.

"Wallflowers need not apply," he says.

On the retail side, Flight Centre's peopleworks leader Sue Matson says the firm is struggling to attract sales people to work at its branches in Christchurch.

"I am not sure why it is," she says. "It could be that people are sticking with the job they have, but finding people to fill our retail and corporate travel positions has been tough.

"The type of talent we look for just doesn't appear to be available. And it isn't a training issue because we train the people we hire."

Matson says the company tends to attract people who are starting their second career, have had a background in sales and service, and are passionate about travel.

"The wider they have travelled the better," she says. "It helps our customers if our staff have been to the places they want to go to."

Like Laskey, Matson likes to see job applicants with a tertiary qualification.

"It shows they have a level of intelligence, and that they are able to stick with something," she says.

Steve Hart is a freelance journalist at SteveHart.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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