10 criteria for evaluating a training program

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Marc ManciniWhat do Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and Warren Buffett have in common? Asked what trait they thought successful people share, all three gave the same answer: a commitment to lifelong learning.

That insight is especially relevant to travel professionals. The travel business is a dynamic one. Change is its only constant. To stay on top of your game, you must commit yourself to lifelong learning.

Fortunately, our industry offers plenty of training opportunities: online courses, conference seminars, videos, local presentations and other resources that can help you work smarter.

But which programs are worth your time and money? What follows are 10 criteria, gathered from recent studies on how adults learn, to help you sort out the best training opportunities out there. We'll cite a few specific examples, too, most of which have been nominees or winners of Travel Weekly's yearly Readers Choice Awards for Best Travel Agent Educational Program.

1) Do you feel like you're learning or being marketed to? Some suppliers and destinations build their training, especially their online courses, by using recycled marketing copy. The problem is that marketing campaigns target consumers, not travel pros. Training programs like these feel more like a commercial than an educational tool. The best training programs are designed to teach, not preach.

2) Does the program treat you like a professional? A training program should respect your intelligence and experience. If you're new to the business, the content shouldn't be way over your head. If you're a veteran, it will be a good review but will also trigger new insights. Once you complete the course, you should feel you've achieved something. Three good examples: ASTA's courses, Holland America Academy and anything from the Travel Institute.

3) Does it offer you a choice of how you'll learn? Some people learn best in live classroom training, others by going online, still others through video. Education is like any other product: The more channels of distribution you provide, the more customers you'll attract. Ideally, a person should be able to choose from several training media.

4) Does the training program show you how to sell and market? Facts are important, but how you apply those facts to sales is even more valuable. The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau Ke Kula Training Program is a good example. It starts with the basics: island names, key cities, resort locations and the like. But it quickly moves on to sales- and marketing-related issues: which type of client each island attracts, how to position Hawaii's assets as benefits and what opportunities Hawaii offers for you to upsell and cross-sell.

5) Does it present an objective point of view? From the start, Marriott's Hotel Excellence program makes it clear that it intends to help you acquire the skills you need to sell anyone's lodging. Marriott's products don't come into full play until you're well into the course. It's a bold approach by a confident supplier that puts your success first. Has it worked? Well, more than 100,000 travel professionals worldwide have completed the Hotel Excellence program. Almost surely they've sold more Marriott products than they had before, perhaps a lot more. That way, everyone wins.

6) Does the training hold your attention? Several studies have shown that in a traditional learning situation, the average person can concentrate fully for about 30 minutes on a course's content. But how much content can you cover in 30 minutes? Not much.

The fact is, a well-crafted training session, live or online, keeps your attention for a surprisingly long time. The best ones are designed to "shift gears" every 10 minutes or so. Example: The presenter introduces the topic, then gives attendees a self-diagnostic test, followed by a breakout, then a video clip, a discussion, a 10-minute break -- you get the idea.

Think about your favorite movie. Almost surely it has a well-structured plot, quick editing, compact dialogue and other Hollywood tricks of the trade to keep your attention pretty much from start to finish. And I'll bet that favorite film is at least 90 minutes long. A well-designed training program can do the very same thing.

7) Is it interactive? High-quality training makes the learner an active partner in the process. This is nothing new. Socrates taught his followers through a simple but powerful form of interaction: asking questions. No lectures, no statements, just questions.

People remember 20% of what they hear but 90% of what they say or do. Training should therefore be a dynamic, interactive thing, with plenty of give-and-take.

A U.S. Department of Education meta-study on learning modalities concluded that live training from a gifted presenter is still, for most people, the most effective medium. But to the surprise of many, online training, when properly designed, is almost as effective as live training, with one caveat: It requires the learner to be really committed; online courses at major colleges have a huge dropout rate.

Imagine if a tourist bureau offered an e-course that enabled you to experience its most popular attractions via an interactive, 3-D video game. Or how about a virtual ship inspection that you control, deciding what you want to see, where you want to go and in what order?

That level of technology is still very expensive. I know this because long ago, I worked on a project funded by American Airlines and IBM to create a "travel agent training program of the future." It cost well over $1 million, but the things it could do were impressive even by today's standards. Unfortunately, it never went beyond beta testing once air commissions disappeared.

Eventually, the cost for super interactivity will come down. For now, if you sign up for an online course, make sure it has at least a few simple interactive elements, like mini-quizzes, map activities or self-diagnostics, to keep you engaged, attentive and interested.

8) How much will you learn? Some time ago, CLIA commissioned a study to measure how impact of its training on agent productivity. Their findings: Agents who complete the Accredited Cruise Counselor program sell nearly triple the cruises they did before they began the program. Others have seen similar results. Good training does work.

9) Is it fun? Nothing says that learning has to be dull. A prime example: Norwegian Cruise Line's NCLU. Its "virtual college" is fun to attend, and its relaxed, playful tone matches its "Freestyle" approach to cruising quite nicely.

10) Is there a reward? To help you decide if a training program is worth it, find out which benefits, if any, it offers those who complete it. Will you be eligible for special fams? Exclusive industry rates? Consumer leads? Invitations to special events? Can you use it for "continuing education" credit elsewhere (e.g., for the Travel Institute)?

As for other platforms, video is still a powerful medium and webinars are great for familiarizing agents with products, communicating brief, practical messages, like a special sale or a ship launch, and for building relationships with suppliers. But as a vehicle for training they're iffy. The last time you attended a webinar, did you also check your calendar, open mail, text a client or have lunch during the presentation? Webinars do work as tools for training only if you commit to paying attention.

Before you sign on to a training program, talk to a colleague who's taken it, look for blog discussions on it or contact the supplier or destination marketing organization to find out more. Lifelong learning is a commitment, but a productive one. Maybe it's a cliche, but it's accurate: The more you learn, the more you'll earn.

Marc Mancini is a leading designer of travel training programs.

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