n discussing the need for agreed-upon standards in industry certification, Travel Institute president David Preece made a candid observation.

After noting the tough times his organization (whose members are primarily traditional travel agents) has endured in recent years, he said, "How travel is distributed is the issue, not whether people are traveling. The trend line for travel will continue to go up -- in the long-term, the effect of 9/11 on travel will only be a blip."

In connecting the dots between that statement and his desire for universally recognized certification, Preece appears to be saying that standardized, professional credentials can strengthen the traditional travel channels.

Preece won't find philosophical opposition to his goal. There may be some parochial debate between, for instance, Nacta and OSSN about what home-based agents need to know to be "professional," but it's unlikely he'll find disagreement about the desirability of his objective.

Preece has invited ARC, Iatan and 17 major professional associations to assist in creating new standards. As they begin, I hope they take note of the uninvited, the elephant that's not in the room. There's no professional organization (yet) that represents the likes of InterActiveCorp, Travelocity, Priceline and Orbitz.

If there were -- and Preece had invited it -- it might have accepted the invitation, but only out of politeness. The fact of the matter is that professional certification is irrelevant to the leadership of the online giants. And they're the ones gaining marketshare.

It can help a traditional agency's credibility, both in the office and on the Web, if employees have verifiable credentials. But I doubt Expedia has lost a single sale because its president, Erik Blachford, doesn't have CTC after his name.

Preece must make sure that the changes in travel distribution are taken into account within any new certification program. He needs to identify core competencies that go far beyond basic sales skills and destination/product knowledge.

Vacation.com, Amex and Carlson have announced that they are not ceding the online business to existing leaders, and the last-named two groups may already possess the resources to play in that space. But individual agencies can't, unless a certification program provides them with the expertise to raise millions in venture capital and create cutting-edge technology.

With all due respect to the invited organizations and their leaders, the people who can most help Preece's certification process be meaningful are the agency owners who are happy in this new environment, the ones who don't want to turn back the clock. These are the agents who can identify new competencies for this era of competing distribution channels.

Finding such agents will require recognition, incidentally, that some of the most successful agencies are not members of any professional association. Many can be found, however, in agency chains, consortia or franchises. The institute's board includes leaders of these groups, and they'll need to be actively involved, too.

The elephant can't be co-opted, is difficult to compete with and, though he's not in the room, still makes his presence felt. But there are an increasing number of lithe, quick creatures in the industry jungle who live contentedly among the elephants. Their input in the certification process is critical, and their involvement should begin sooner rather than later.

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