Have you ever had one of those simple, seemingly random moments that turned out to be life-changing? Let me tell you about one of mine.
I was in my late 20s and had just begun to help a former student and her family open a travel agency in Playa del Rey, Calif. I knew very little about the agency business, but I loved to travel and had been for many summers a tour manager, so why not?
A few months after it opened, our agency received an invitation to a local ASTA seminar titled "Geography for Travel Agents." The subject sounded mildly interesting, and it would also be a nice opportunity to network and to perhaps learn a bit more about how the travel business works.
I had expected the presentation to be some sort of condensed, high-speed version of my high school geography course, with lots of maps, famous cities and such.
It was not.
Instead, the focus was on geographic principles that travel agents could directly apply to their work. Pragmatic geography. Who would have thought?
We discovered why ocean waters off California's shores, and off the western beaches of most continents, are unexpectedly cool. (Look up the "Coriolis effect.") We found out why resorts on tropical islands are usually on the western shores. (They're sheltered from the moist trade winds that flow from the east.) And we discovered why snow tends to be more powdery on a mountain's eastern slope. (Sorry, I forgot the reason.)
Some of what I learned was counterintuitive. For example, if a client flew from Los Angeles to Bermuda, the shortest way to get there, both in time and distance, would be by connecting through Toronto.
That seminar convinced me that I needed to know more -- a lot more -- about geography. Thereafter, deepening my knowledge of geography and destinations became a passion, and for a while it defined who I was in our industry. Somehow people grew to see me as an expert in the field. I guess I do know more about geography than the average person, but let's be honest: In a head-to-head geo competition with this publication's editor in chief, Arnie Weissmann, I assure you I'd get killed.
In recent times, however, sales, service, product knowledge and technology have become our industry's training priorities. And that's fine. They are indeed essential to our success. But I'm afraid that geography is now something that we've stored away in a dusty attic, at one time important, now completely forgotten.
Want proof? I used to get requests for as many as a dozen geography presentations to travel industry groups every year. But the last time I was asked to give a presentation on destination-related geography was more than five years ago.
Fortunately, over the years I've also learned a lot about the intricacies of sales and service, and that's usually what I'm asked to speak about. I'm not complaining; it's been fun to find new ways to interpret the age-old, yet ever-changing principles of these two very valuable skills.
But I can't help thinking of an old, bad joke: "What's great about being a travel agent? It's the only job where you get paid to tell people where to go."
Well, no matter how much sales and service training you've had, you can't possibly succeed if you don't know where there is.
And the problem is getting worse. The average U.S. high school student studies geography for two weeks, usually as part of a social studies course. Two weeks! And we're hoping that this new generation will reinvigorate the travel industry? Good luck.
What can we do about it? Well, perhaps the solution starts with us.
There are still plenty of opportunities for us to deepen our knowledge about the world we sell. A great way is through tourist bureau seminars and online training. Even better: Invest some of your time and energy by enrolling in a destination certification program.
Here's an example: Let's say you've noticed a renewed interest among your clients to vacation in Hawaii. Then commit yourself to take the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau's Ke Kula O Hawaii certification program. Even if you think you already know everything about Hawaii, trust me, you don't, especially if you haven't been there in a while. And that applies to almost every destination you sell.
Tourist bureaus aren't your only resource. Enroll in one of the dozen high-quality destination specialist courses offered by the Travel Institute. Check out CLIA's training: It offers online courses, live seminars and a DVD on port geography. Suggest to your host agency, consortium or agency chain that destination geography should become an essential component of their yearly conference and their ongoing training.
Check out what destination-oriented cable channels such as the National Geographic Channel and the Travel Channel are showing. Keep on the lookout for specific programs whose format is based on travel and geography. My two favorites: "The Amazing Race" and the Science Channel series "An Idiot Abroad," the most wonderfully strange travel-based show I've ever seen.
This doesn't mean that we should make room for geography by pushing aside sales and service training. The three go hand-in-hand.
Indeed, the very best destination training programs aren't only fact-based; they're sales-based. They help you identify which of your clients are prime prospects for their destination, show you how to overcome false preconceptions about the place you've recommended and demonstrate how to paint that destination's benefits in the most effective and meaningful way.
It's time, I think, to reprioritize destination geography as an essential component to a travel professional's success. Otherwise, I fear, we'll all be going nowhere, fast.
Marc Mancini is a leading designer of training curricula. His textbook, "Selling Destinations," is used in more than 100 travel programs worldwide. He designed and hosted the AAA Travel High School Challenge, which attracted nearly 200,000 student participants over its five-year run.