The allure of the travel industry as a career, recently seen as dated as a Pan Am stewardess pillbox, is surging as more people take jobs in a sector bolstered by renewed spending.

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The allure of the travel industry as a career, recently seen as dated as a Pan Am stewardess pillbox, is surging as more people take jobs in a sector bolstered by renewed spending.

Hotels, restaurants and other travel-related businesses are adding more positions, attracting people like Matthew Bryant, a hospitality studies student at the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University.

“The hospitality industry is beginning to recover, and I decided to switch careers because I saw a professional future in it,” says Bryant, 26, who worked for five years as a federal government consultant in Washington after college. “I wanted to combine the skills I had learned as a consultant in a customer service industry, and this seemed a great fit.”

While job recovery nationally has been lagging, the travel industry has been faring much better. About 8 percent, or 7,000, of the total of 88,000 jobs added by employers in March were in the travel industry, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group.

Uptick in business travel
The growth is being spurred, in part, by a modest rise in business travel spending. As the economy improves, such spending is predicted to climb 5.1 percent this year, to $268.5 billion, according to the Global Business Travel Association, a trade group. Its forecast, released in April, is up substantially from the 1.8 percent rise in industry spending in 2012, and higher than the group’s previous prediction for growth of 4.6 percent.

“Companies feel the need to compete, and the global economy is driving companies to invest in business travel,” says Michael W. McCormick, the association’s executive director.

Shored up by strong corporate profits, companies are sending more employees to conventions, meetings and industry events — gatherings that were more strictly circumscribed when the economy sank.

“Events are being planned farther in advance,” says Eric Eden, vice president for marketing at Cvent, a meeting and event management technology company. “And there are more national meetings instead of small, regional ones, and higher numbers of people attending each event.”

As a result, hotels are seeing more bookings for meetings, and rates are increasing, he says. Spending on group events, Eden adds, is expected to increase 6 percent this year, to almost $116 million, compared with an earlier prediction of 5.2 percent growth in 2013.

And hotel occupancy rates are moving up steadily, says Jan Freitag, senior vice president for global development at Smith Travel Research, which tracks the hotel industry.

“Occupancy rates, which are a bellwether for business travel, rose over the last three years to 64.3 percent,” he says.

Overall, about 7.7 million people worked in the travel sector, according to figures for the last three months of 2012 provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, part of the Commerce Department. Although spending declined in air and other transportation, outlays rose for traveler accommodation and for food services and drinking places, by 9.4 percent and 8.6 percent respectively, according to the federal figures released in March.

The data covers a range of jobs, from the minimum-wage, no-benefit slots to well-paid hotel analyst positions, but some 53 percent of travel industry workers are paid $25,000 to $69,000, according to a U.S. Travel Association analysis of the federal jobs data done in conjunction with Oxford Economics, an economics forecasting firm.

According to the analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the travel industry is one of the top 10 largest employers of middle-class wage earners, with a maximum average salary of $81,900. Two of every five workers who start their careers in the travel industry go on to earn more than $100,000 a year, according to the association analysis.

Attractive placement rates
Those prospects persuaded Bryant to enroll in hospitality studies. After graduating with a political science degree in 2008 from American University, Bryant landed a job at a management consulting firm. But after five years, “I wanted a change and be involved in a customer service industry,” he says.

He enrolled last fall in the Tisch program, part of the 75 percent increase in undergraduate and graduate students there since 2010. When he graduates in spring 2014, he hopes that the experience he has gained from internships in real estate investment and other areas will land him a management-level job.

The university does not provide separate figures for hospitality, tourism and sports management enrollment or specifics on employment, but it says that more than 90 percent of its 2012 graduates are working in industry operations, development, branding or finance.

Although few graduates lack jobs, Bjorn Hanson of the Tisch Center notes that the travel sector recovery could be somewhat lower than forecast.

“If the 1.1 percent decrease in the number of business trips forecast by the association is realized, I think a 5 percent spending increase is on the high side,” he says, referring to the Global Business Travel Association’s 2013 forecast. “On that basis I estimate spending would increase maybe 3 percent.”

Business trips, in fact, are expected to dip 1.1 percent, to 431.7 million trips, according to the Global Business Travel Association’s 2013 forecast, although the cost per trip is rising, and that generates higher travel industry spending figures.

The overall industry outlook encouraged Nicholas Hosseini, 21, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., to switch recently from a major in economics at Cornell to its school of hotel administration.

According to Cornell, 94 percent of the hotel administration school’s 2012 graduates have full-time jobs (1 percent went to graduate school), up from 88 percent in 2011.

“It’s rare around here to find someone who does not have a job,” says Hosseini. “This summer I will be working at a hotel investors group in San Francisco, a job I found through our alumni network, and that’s practical experience I plan to use to go into the hotel field.

“The hardest part,” he says, “was convincing my parents that hospitality did not mean I would be working at a front desk.”