Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Last week, I referenced the rise of "transformational travel" -- trips that add meaning to one's life -- as a trend that can motivate consumers to continue to explore the world despite a drumbeat of incidents that might otherwise suppress travel.

Coincidentally, last week also saw the release of a training program that is essentially a how-to guide for selling travel that not only provides deeply satisfying experiences but can strengthen client relations, increase business and support the destinations and communities that are the foundation of the industry.

Good Travels Advisor (GTA) training, which debuted at the ASTA Global Convention in Reno, Nev., is a certification course that follows the format of many agent-training programs but isn't destination or product specific. It was created by the industry nonprofit Tourism Cares, which had hired Phocuswright to conduct extensive research into consumers and their behavior with regard to travel, social impact and philanthropy.

(Triple disclosure: I am on the board of Tourism Cares, and the course was executed by Northstar Marketing Solutions, which like Phocuswright and Travel Weekly, is a division of Northstar Travel Group.)

Funding the course is an impressive list of industry sponsors: Marriott, AIG Travel, Royal Caribbean International, Fathom, Amadeus, Travel Corporation's TreadRight Foundation, Monograms by Globus, Collette, Abercrombie & Kent, TripAssure, Micato Safaris, Avanti Destinations, Cox & Kings and Paul Gauguin Cruises.

It's also endorsed by Iatan, ASTA and the U.N. World Tourism Organization, and completion of the course provides continuing education credits for Certified Travel Counselors and Certified Travel Associates. Travel Leaders Group, Signature Travel Network, Ensemble, Nexion, Hickory Global Partners and MAST Travel Network have also gotten behind the effort.

I took and completed the course and found it to be inspiring, practical and full of insight.

Tourism Cares research was used to create a philanthropic profile of American travelers, and identified the three groups most motivated to volunteer on a social impact project or likely to donate to travel-related communities in need: millennials (more generous with time, money and in-kind donations than any other generation), the affluent (tour operators and travel agents influence their charitable contributions) and families (more likely to volunteer activities and give in-kind donations).

The course provides detailed information on how to find and connect with these travelers and bring up the subject of social impact travel, explore possibilities and choose experiences that will result in client satisfaction.

Complementing the research is commentary from agents who are already focusing on this segment of travel. Ted Bradpiece of Explorer Travel Services in Canyon Country, Calif., said that simply asking, "Are you interested in doing a volunteer activity?" opens a discussion that "[provides] them with the experience they want."

Daniela Harrison of Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz., offered a social media tip: When she participates in a volunteer activity during a trip, she posts it to Facebook and writes that if this is something a client would like to do, to let her know. She tracks who "likes" the post, and that provides an entry point to discuss adding a volunteer element to future trips.

The business benefits of being known as an expert in this type of travel can be substantial. In addition to stronger client-adviser relationships and increased loyalty, it can become a point of differentiation. Those who complete the course receive a certificate and permission to use GTA logos and the GTA designation in all communication and marketing materials.

A Graduate Center includes downloadable e-brochures that one can forward to clients on topics such as being a responsible traveler, having meaningful volunteer experiences, helping destinations after a disaster, steps to maximize charitable giving and tips for families interested in experiencing social impact trips together.

Tourism Cares also has a consumer website, GoodTravels.org, that explains the benefits of working with advisers who have completed the course.

I thought one of the most valuable parts of the course was the information about how to vet possible trips and charitable organizations so that clients will be sent with reputable companies and support effective organizations.

Tips about appropriate behaviors when visiting countries where they might be doing volunteer work are also provided to pass along to travelers.

And, importantly, the course includes step-by-step instructions on how to use GTA for business development, from announcing your certification to building a list of proven, reputable suppliers to gauging a potential client's charitable interest.

Although personal experience in this type of travel isn't required for certification, those who have themselves experienced social impact trips will no doubt be the best at promoting it. That point is well-summarized by Dave Holman of Bridges & Holman Worldwide of Hesperia, Calif., in this observation:

"It's like fine dining. If you have never experienced it, you can't talk about it," he said. "Anybody who wants to incorporate this into their work has to go and do it to see for themselves. It's very rewarding to feel that you have gone someplace and actually done something; you have left it a little better."

It's a rare industry that provides opportunities to grow a business and truly make the world a little better. GTA is a blueprint for exactly that.

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