TW forum evaluates agent education programs

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HONOLULU -- "Knowledge is power." It's an old saying, but for travel agents selling Hawaii, nothing sums things up better.

Education programs are one of the most important elements for increasing sales, according to suppliers at the 2002 Hawaii Leadership Forum here.

Panelists from hotel and wholesale sectors agreed that agent education programs are key, but there were differing opinions as to what kinds of education programs work best.

In addition to hoteliers and wholesalers, agents think education programs are important to increasing sales, according to a Travel Weekly e-mail poll presented at the forum.

Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they could increase Hawaii sales by being part of an education program where the destination or Hawaii resorts or packagers refer interested clients to the agent; while 22% said they need to learn more about the destination through an agent-specialist training program, product seminars or fam trips.

Elizabeth Moriarty, vice president of product development for Edina, Minn.-based MLT Vacations/Northwest Airlines World Vacations, said one of the ways her company likes to educate agents is through a yearly, two-day "university."

"Our program is very effective," Moriarty said. "Travel agents have to pay to attend, and bookings made by them later are deducted from their tuition."

Rick Garrett, president of Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Happy Vacations, said fam trips are the most effective means of education for his company.

"People who go on fams -- you can look down the list and see their names on Hawaii bookings years, decades afterward," Garrett said.

Ed Jackson, president of Runaway Tours in San Francisco, said his fams focus on the destination as well as hotels, and that seminars held inside travel agencies after business hours are "the most effective."

Still another way to empower agents through education is the regionalized trade show, according to Bob Kaufman, vice president of sales at Newton Square, Pa.-based Apple Vacations.

The Oahu Visitors Bureau (OVB) received praise from several panelists, including Cheryl Williams, director of leisure sales and marketing at Starwood Hotels, and Dave Herren, executive vice president of Milwaukee-based Mark Travel.

"By far, the most successful travel agent program being done is by the OVB," said Williams. "It is a total destination immersion. I have not seen anything like it in the last two years. The way they change the perception of Oahu in agents' minds is amazing."

Herren added that with an "intensive" program such as the OVB's, agents should count on concentrating on that one island alone. "To try to add another island is totally impractical," he said.

In addition to trade shows, fam trips and destination immersion programs, self-study programs also are important, panelists said.

Many of those programs include books agents study from, but panelists hope that those programs can involve more technology in the future.

"We provided a CD [for a self-study program], but we found a lot of the agents don't even have the equipment to play a CD," said Moriarty.

Kaufman said he would like to see the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau come up with an Internet-based education program.

The HVCB's Ke Kula 'O Hawaii program does include a CD that contains supplemental information to its study book, but it does not have an Internet component.

"It would be really wonderful to use the Web to have something done on line for training, something developed by the HVCB," said Kaufman. "I think it would have to be very broad-based because you have to take into account that some agents' knowledge of the destination is very rudimentary.

"We're talking about educating agents on the breadth of the product."

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