As the number of brick-and-mortar agencies on America's Main Streets and strip malls declined, something else dwindled along with them: the local travel school.
Many agency owners made extra money after hours by teaching would-be agents how to use a res system, the ins and outs of destination geography, airport codes and the meaning of the industry's alphabet soup of acronyms. There are still a handful of these schools left as well as colleges and universities that offer travel and tourism or hospitality management programs. But even in many large cities, there are no educational programs dedicated to training frontline agents, either to get their careers started or to provide continuing education.
The decline of agency-affiliated travel schools is not due solely to the reduction of brick-and-mortar agencies. Before the rise of Web-based graphic booking interfaces, the most esoteric skill that differentiated travel agents from civilians was the ability to book travel on a GDS "green screen." When the ability to book travel spread to the general public, several pundits thought this signaled that agents were on the road to extinction.
They have been proven wrong, of course. The knowledge and skills that have permitted so many travel agents to prosper are less technical, but no less distinctive and important. While sales training and destination and product knowledge are as vital today as ever, there's a new set of essential skills and knowledge that simply didn't exist 15 years ago. Travel schools of old didn't teach search engine optimization, customer relationship management or database marketing. A few schools may have looked at building a niche-based business or how to be an outside, home-based agent, but these areas of study were not nearly as prominent as they would be today.
Suppliers have picked up the slack with a wide array of online training and certification programs (which, as agents will tell you, vary significantly in quality). CLIA and the Travel Institute, the two professional organizations that are most active in continuing education, offer training modules online and face to face, often in conjunction with industry events. (CLIA will be among the groups offering certification courses at Travel Weekly's LeisureWorld 2011 and Home Based Travel Agent Show, co-located at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas Feb. 15 through 17; for more information, go to www.travelweekly.com/leisureworld/2011/home.aspx.)
Less known to agents is that both associations also have agreements with colleges and universities to provide in-classroom training so that agents can gain credits toward those organizations' certification programs.
The latest development, and a significant step in many regards, is CLIA's articulation agreement with the University of Phoenix. An articulation agreement means the university will recognize CLIA training modules as credits toward a degree, in this case an associate or bachelor's degree.
It's significant not only because it's a great incentive for agents already enrolled in CLIA training programs to step up their participation with the hopes of picking up a college degree but also because it may well encourage professionally minded people to become travel agents.
The extent to which the public considers travel agents to be "professionals" is important. For consumers who already rely on agents, a diploma on the wall instills trust, reinforces the perception that they're working with someone who has significantly more knowledge than they do and facilitates the acceptance of service fees.
For those considering a career as a travel agent, the possibility of a degree will attract those whom we most desperately need to attract: people who are not merely looking for a job but who are attracted by the possibility of engaging in a field that includes a level of academic rigor.
While CLIA training goes beyond cruise product knowledge (they have modules on social media and CRM, for instance), industry training remains, by and large, a disparate and patchwork affair. The Travel Institute under David Preece tried to become the hub of industry training efforts, but it found there was little interest; no one wanted to take a subsidiary role in the training process and cede control of their message. I don't see that changing going forward.
But I could see a university -- perhaps the University of Phoenix, perhaps another that currently offers industry management courses -- closely evaluating existing supplier and industry association programs and constructing a virtual curriculum that provides a comprehensive travel agent degree based on the best of existing cruise, hotel, tour, auto rental and destination training programs.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter.