The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB) launched an improved Travel Agent Online Resource Center earlier this year, rolling out a range of upgrades to its Agents.gohawaii.com site and debuting a dramatically overhauled Hawaii Destination Specialist training program. Shane Nelson, Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, spoke recently with Robyn Basso, the HVCB's senior director of travel industry partnerships, about what travel agents mean to Hawaii tourism and how her organization's enhanced online education and certification program will improve their sales to the Aloha State.
Q: How important are travel agents to Hawaii's tourism industry?
A: The travel agent is a critical extension of our sales force. With all that's offered in Hawaii, it can be overwhelming to some consumers, and they are really looking for a knowledgeable adviser to help guide them through all the information to create that perfect vacation package. So I think travel agents are invaluable in that process. It's not only a financial investment, but it's also an investment of time, and we want the visitors to have the best experience possible, [so] we have invested so much in the new Travel Agent Resource Center, the website and all of the specialist programs to really make sure agents have the most up-to-date and relevant information and training right at their fingertips. We want to arm them with the best information, so they can exceed those client expectations.
Q: What's different about the new online training program for agents?
A: HVCB now offers six online certifications for travel agents, and all of those are available on the website. The new courses are really focused on being user-friendly on a mobile-optimized platform, and we really wanted to incorporate beautiful visuals, audio narrations and videos. I think most importantly, we tried to segment them into shorter modules to save agents valuable time. It's not a multiple-hour commitment in one sitting. Agents can go in as their schedule permits, and when they log out, if they log back in, the program offers a resume tool, so the training will pick back up exactly where they left off.
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Q: What are the six certifications?
A: The first two certifications encompass the Hawaii Destination's Specialist Program, which has a statewide focus. So certification one is an Introduction to Hawaii, and certification two is Selling the Hawaiian Islands; once agents complete those two certifications, then they earn their designation as a Hawaii Destination Specialist. Then they can continue on and complete the next set of certifications we launched, the individual Island Specialist programs. Those offer more in-depth information on each island. We have a module for Kauai, one for Oahu, and we have a module for Maui Nui, [which includes] Maui, Molokai and Lanai. And there is also one for [the Big Island of Hawaii]. They can do those in any order, but they have to complete certifications one [Introduction to Hawaii] and two [Selling the Hawaiian Islands] before they go on to the individual island programs, because we want them to have that statewide foundation before getting into more island specifics.
Q: What's in the first two modules?
A: Introduction to Hawaii gives people an overview of the destination, and what's here for them to sell in the Islands. We talk about history and culture and their significance. We talk about resort areas, attractions, activities, festivals and events. We want them to have an understanding of the island chain as a whole. And then in certification two, Selling the Hawaiian Islands, we take that basic destination information geography and teach them how to sell and market to specific client types. We have certain groups we target, like romance, arts and culture, outdoor recreation and golf. And we try to talk about why that client is such a great fit for Hawaii and try to give agents some tips and tools on how to sell and market to those particular segments. We also weave in upselling and cross-selling strategies and how to really make Hawaii a profitable sales proposition for them.
Q: What can agents expect in the individual island modules?
A: It really gets more in depth [and] allows us to really focus on that island. So there are more off-the-beaten-path tips and insider information. You're learning more about the festivals and events and also more about the unique personality of each island. We really want agents to have that understanding because the Islands are so diverse. We want them to have the tools to qualify and recommend the right client for the right island or combination of islands.
A snorkeler’s view of Kona on the Big island. Photo Credit: Kawika Singson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Q: Do agents who were previously Hawaii Destination Specialists need to recertify?
A: Yes. Because we have put so much effort behind developing brand-new content, we definitely think it's in the best interest of the agents to re-engage in that content. We're giving them plenty of time. If you were a Hawaii Destination Specialist in the previous program, you actually have until the end of November to recertify, which basically just means going through certifications one and two.
And if you're an Island Specialist, you just need to go through certifications one and two and then whatever individual island you were a specialist in.
And then if you're a Master Specialist, which means you've gone through certifications one and two and all of the individual island programs but you've also done the in-destination program, then you just need to go through the online again. And because the Master Specialists are our highest level of specialists, we're giving them through the end of the year to recertify.
But for agents who are seasoned, they have the option to test out of certification one so they can go right to the final exam. … Many of these agents probably have been selling Hawaii for quite a long time, [but] we are allowing that only as an option for certification one.
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Q: What is the benefit for an agent who is a Hawaii Destination Specialist?
A: One of the benefits that's very valuable are consumer referrals, and basically that means we have our consumer site, the very high-traffic GoHawaii.com, and on the homepage there is a link to find a travel specialist; consumers can now search by state, by ZIP code, or by an island specialty. Or consumers can search for a statewide specialist, if they want to do a multi-island trip, and then the agents will show up.
We've also built in more sophisticated logic on the database that will enable the most knowledgeable agent to sort to the top of the list. So the more training the agent has gone through, the higher they are going to show up on the sort list. The Master Specialists will be showing up first, then the next level will be Hawaii Destination Experts; a Hawaii Destination Expert is a new designation that's for all of the agents who've completed all six of the online certifications. Then the ones that show up toward the bottom are those that have just completed certifications one and two.
We are trying to connect the most knowledgeable agents to the consumers, so the consumers' expectations are met, and we are also trying to encourage the agent to engage in as much training as they can, because that's going to give them more of an advantage.