The Perfect People

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So far there are only three perfect people -- those who have scored 100% on the Travel Agent Proficiency (TAP) test, the measure of entry-level industry knowledge developed by the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA).

That's three out of over 800 who have taken the test since ICTA began administering it this January. Aren't those odds a little low? They may be, said Bill Connors, ICTA's manager of testing and accreditation. Still, 79% of all candidates have passed the test.

Every one of the perfect three teaches travel at least part-time. In fact, travel educators have consistently scored highest on the test -- probably because they're exposed to the material on a regular basis, said Connors. The three paragons of perfection have a grand total of 68 years of travel industry experience. None expected to score so high, and all called the test "challenging but fair."

Colleen O'Shaughnessy, the first to achieve perfection, teaches at the travel school First Institute, Crystal Lake, Ill., but also has longtime agency experience. She keeps up her industry knowledge by "reading as much as I can and attending trade shows."

Lloyd West mostly handles his agency's back-office systems but said he's exposed to all aspects of the business as vice president/co-owner of Carlson Wagonlit/Plan-it Travel in Marysville, Wash. He also teaches geography at the agency's travel school and plans to use the test as a benchmark for potential new hires.

Inge Davis, an outside agent at Business and Leisure Holidays in Honolulu, teaches four nights a week in a local travel school. She took the test to cut down on her waiting period for her IATAN card (IATAN will waive three months of the six-month waiting period for new card applicants who pass the TAP test). But she also was checking out the test for her students and recommends that they take it. "It will look good on their resume and maybe open some doors."

The Specialists

Agencies are using the Institute of Certified Travel Agents' proficianecy test (TAP) in different ways. Some will require job applicants to take the test. On the other hand, Tucson's Bon Voyage Travel plans to have all of its 100 agents tested -- and will be promoting that fact to the public as an example of how professional its agents are, said vice president Wendy Hathorn.

But Bon Voyage's massive TAP effort is just part of an overall program called "Quest for Specialization," designed to differentiate the agency from its competitors. Bon Voyage agents who sign up for the program commit to a variety of training options, from ICTA's destination specialist course to the Cruise Lines International Association's master cruise counselor certification. The agency picks up part of the agent's tab for taking courses. "We hired a former employee to coordinate the program and make sure everyone's keeping up with their courses," Hathorn said.

Agents have become specialists in destinations ranging from the Pacific Rim to western Europe, China and the Caribbean. To promote the program to the public, Bon Voyage started an advertising campaign with the theme "Plan your vacation with the travel specialists."

One ad highlights various agents and their specialties, including their years of experience and their most recent trips, and ends with the tag line "At Bon Voyage Travel, we really do have 'A World of Experience.' "

Specialty Contract

At Bon Voyage Travel in Tucson, Ariz., agents sign a contract to commit to a variety of educational programs, from the Institute of Certified Travel Agents' destination specialist course to the Cruise Lines International Association's various cruise certification deals.

For example, agents who choose to specialize in a destination agree to do the following:

  • Successfully complete ICTA's destination specialist course within six months of beginning the program.
  • Travel to the destination using fam time -- at minimum, every three to five years -- and, after all trips, write an in-depth fam report.
  • Make a brief presentation about the fam trip to coworkers.
  • Become a resource person on the destination for other Bon Voyage agents.
  • Become an expert on preferred vendors associated with the destination, selecting one to focus on. Attend a minimum of five hours per year of seminars by appropriate vendors or professional groups. Pass testing on product knowledge given by Bon Voyage's specialty program coordinator.
  • Keep up with reading about the destination, building a library of reference material.
  • Attend specialist programs offered by tourist boards in a country in the destination area.
  • Be able to use the Internet to gather information about the destination.
  • Research clubs or organizations related to the destination; attend one of their events, if possible.
  • Help for the Fearful Flyer

    Do you have clients who love planning their vacation but start to quiver when you mention booking their flights? Consider referring them to Seminars on Aeroanxiety Relief (SOAR). In operation since 1981, the course was developed by commercial airline pilot Tom Bunn. It offers a step-by-step approach to help aviaphobes conquer their fear. For $390, the fearful flyer receives three audiotapes and booklets, toll-free telephone support, two hours of meetings with a licensed therapist and an airport meeting with Capt. Bunn (if he's available). The cost is $285 without the individual therapy. Call (800) 332-7359, or check out the Web site at www.thebook.com/fearfly.

    Net News

    Cubatravel
    A reader called our attention to Cubatravel, a Tijuana, Mexico-based firm specializing in tours for U.S. citizens who want to visit Cuba legally. The site offers insight on visa procedures and U.S. government regulations regarding Cuba travel as well as some fun stuff like scuba diving sites and tips on spotting fake Cuban cigars. Take a look at: www.cubatravel.com.mx

    JeffMiller.com
    Jeff Miller, owner of both the Miller Travel Group and Professional Seminars, posts his industry newsletter, a list of types of seminars he offers and a catalog of his publications and cassette tapes along with an on-line ordering form. Go to: www.jmillerlaw.com

    Compiled by Jennifer Dorsey. Send suggestions to [email protected].

    A Tour That Really Cooks

    Industry experts say agents should look to their passion when trying to find a specialty -- and that's exactly what Richard Turen has done. The owner of Churchill & Turen, an agency in Naperville, Ill., Turen loves both food and Italy, so it was a natural to combine them in his Tuscany Culinary Tours. The 11-day tours, which he also wholesales to other agents, explore the hill towns of Tuscany, Florence and the Italian Lake District and feature cooking demonstrations in four restaurants. Tour guides are trained to take what Turen calls the "lifestyle instead of the historical approach," which means explaining how Italians live today. The tours are doing so well that for next year Turen is adding a new destination: southern Italy, including Cinqueterra and the Amalfi coast along with Rome. Turen has Sept. 8 and Oct. 8 departures coming up that are priced at $2,694. Call (800) 445-7979.

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