Lifelong learning is the key to agent success.
The true value of today’s travel professional is knowledge. As online travel information and options continue to expand, an agent’s success or failure is ever more closely tied to their training and expertise.
“Long gone are the days of the travel agent being the one that held all the cards and the consumer had nowhere else to go,” says Guida Botelho, CTA, director of training for The Travel Institute. “Today, with a few swipes of their smartphone or tablet, the consumer can find where to eat, what to do and how to get to pretty much any destination in the world. So when they seek out a travel agent, they want to be sure that this agent has the skills, the knowledge and the experience that go far beyond their own resources.”
To that end, the concept of lifelong learning has taken root in the travel agent community. Whether brand-new to the world of travel agents or a pro with decades of experience, savvy travel agents view training as an ongoing process. And it’s a process that’s constantly evolving to best address new topics, new technology and new challenges.
When the Travel Institute (formerly the Institute of Certified Travel Agents) began its travel agency certification program more than 50 years ago, travel agents were using some of the most sophisticated—and confusing—computers out there. Agents needed to learn about green screens and codes and writing tickets. Then, they had to learn about the world they were selling and the supplier products and offerings.
Today, many new agents are running their businesses on their smart phones. Many will never write an airline ticket or even use a GDS. Beyond the technological transformations, the industry as a whole continues to experience fast-paced and dramatic changes.
“Today’s travel professional faces increased competition in the marketplace, which forces those individuals serious about their careers and customers to seek higher quality education with both soft skills and business skills,” says Botelho. “By developing sales skills, communication skills, marketing and business planning expertise, travel professionals can set themselves apart from the competition and effectively and efficiently grow their business.”
In the search for more and better knowledge, today’s travel professionals seek training across a variety of methods and from multiple sources. Because the industry has no required certifications and no standard that every travel seller must complete, the path to learning and the opinions on the most effective methods and necessities are quite varied.
We threw the question out to members of Travel Weekly’s Global Travel Marketplace Alumni group on Facebook—and received dozens of comments in just 15 minutes. Most respondents said they use a combination of techniques to learn: webinars, industry publications, on-site FAMS, and online and in-person courses and conferences from suppliers, consortia and associations.
“Today’s student seeks practical, real-world/real-work experiences, delivered in an engaging, blended approach to learning. And of course they want it—need it—24 hours a day, seven days a week, constructed in quick but meaningful segments for greater understanding and retention,” says Botelho.
Delivering the Goods
The good news is that a number of entities are stepping up to meet the ongoing educational needs of travel professionals, from associations to consortia and networks to a range of suppliers.
Opportunities for certifications abound, allowing agents to prove their mastery of subject matter, both within the industry and to potential clients. Among the most recognized are The Travel Institute’s longstanding CTA (Certified Travel Associate), CTC (Certified Travel Counselor) and CTIE (Certified Travel Industry Executive), along with Cruise Lines International Association’s CCC (Certified Cruise Counsellor), ACC (Accredited Cruise Counsellor), MCC (Master Cruise Counsellor) and ECC (Elite Cruise Counsellor).
CLIA’s professional development and training programs were revamped in recent years and are now offered in self-learning and live training, resulting in a spike in agents seeking their credentials. According to CLIA, between 2016 and 2017, there was a 265 percent increase year-over-year in certification enrollment and 175 percent in certification graduates.
And just recently, the American Society of Travel Agents launched a new VTA (Verified Travel Advisor) certification. The new program consists of nine required courses that each take up to 90 minutes to complete, focusing on a range of real-world business needs, such as Ethics for Travel Advisors, Legal Overview for the Travel Agency Industry, Real World Sales Tactics, Project Management and Planning for the Travel Advisor, and more.
Every agent network and consortia offers in-depth training programs as well as in-person training opportunities, many with new shorter formats and online options. Organizations including Virtuoso, Avoya, Cruise Planners, Cruise One, Nexion, Travel Leaders and others have all retooled and revamped their training to satisfy today’s learners.
For example, Travel Leaders of Tomorrow, the training arm of Travel Leaders Group, launched in April of 2013 and has since enrolled 465 students in its 18-week virtual campus. “Including our current three groups, 70 percent of the Virtual Campus participants have completed the program and are working in the travel industry somewhere,” says Heather Kindred, CTIE, program director, Travel Leaders of Tomorrow. “Our Virtual Campus program continues to include weekly instructor-led study hall sessions, group collaboration though a discussion board, and presentations.”
Beyond certifications and formal curriculum, webinars continue to grow in popularity. Providing opportunities for viewing both in real time and on-demand, the format is especially popular for busy agents who need information-packed training in relatively quick bursts. For example, the Travel Weekly and TravelAge West webinar portfolio includes more than 60 webinars a year from suppliers and destinations, which are then archived and used by agency owners for ongoing training. The format is also popular with consortia and host agencies, as well as individual suppliers, resulting in a multitude of web-based learning options that cover anything from a first look at new supplier products to destination selling techniques to overviews of niche markets and more.
While expert-led education is critical, many travel professionals also discover additional insights, techniques and tips from their travel agent peers in a variety of formats.
Nancy Cutter, owner of Court Travel Ltd., wrote her CTC paper on how to create an FIT back in 1998. She is now completing an 80-page training manual for her agents and independent contractors on what she truly considers the art form of creating an FIT. To Nancy, training is all about the details—and she emphasizes that learning is a lifelong endeavor for both herself and her agents.
Joanie and Tom Ogg literally wrote the book on starting a home-based travel business. The first version of their book How To Start A Home-Based Travel Agency was published in 1994, and they now have more than a dozen books available to educate new entrants to the profession. They have been leaders in education and training for decades in this industry. Today, their online Travel Professional Community is a hub for peer learning and discussion.
“Looking back in time, travel professionals had to rely on what now seem like archaic options for training and education. My, how things have changed,” says Joanie Ogg, CTC, MCC, co-owner of HomeBasedTravelAgent.com and TravelProfessionalCommunity.com. “Options including eBooks, webinars, online certification programs, online industry publications, Facebook Live, Google Groups and other seemingly instantly accessible training and education is the norm today. The exchange of knowledge between travel professionals that we see in the agent-only social network we operate, TravelProfessionalCommunity.com, is phenomenal.”
Other online communities, Facebook and LinkedIn groups, consortia boards and more have become active new learning environments for travel professionals to share ideas, ask questions, crowdsource problem-sharing, and communicate about a range of day-to-day and large-scale issues they face.
And Suzy Schreiner of Azure Blue Vacations freely admits that she also uses consumer boards as learning opportunities. “I do get quite a bit of great insight by perusing the boards (gasp!)—yes, TripAdvisor, Rick Steves, Cruise Critic, etc. I find the tidbits that are not detailed on websites and training modules, such as great dinner spots, tips on room selection, off-the-beaten-path touring and so on.”
Despite all the online options, in this people-centered business, on-site experience and face-to-face encounters continue to be a critical component of education. And these days, the FAM trip is back and better than ever. In fact, when we asked the Global Travel Marketplace Alumni about their preferred method of learning, on-site FAMS were the hands-down winner.
In one-on-one interviews with travel agent professionals, we heard a similar story. Donna Wolfe, of Donchka Travel and Plaza Travel, says adding an independent FAM to a hosted FAM “is the whole enchilada.” For example, she recently returned from a hosted six-night FAM trip, where she added another eight nights. She “stayed at seven hotels [and] sited another seven. [It was an] opportunity to experience so much product.”
Jamison (Jamie) Bachrach, owner and founder of travel agency Wandering Puffin LLC, is a sole proprietor. He still learns each day. “To me, training is not necessarily a formalized kind of thing. It can be informal, real-life experiences,” he says. “The thing that works for me personally is to create my own FAM trips. The only way to be successful in an industry, especially travel, is to go to places where you have a passion so you can [talk to your clients about] real-life experiences and stories. “
Bachrach’s number-one specialty is Iceland. He has been there 15 times, going at least once a year to check out the product, reconnect with vendors and visit at least one new place each time he goes. He has been to another 50 countries, so he has a selling advantage. But when he is working with clients on a destination he doesn’t know, he needs additional resources to help educate him. To that end, he uses tools like TravelBound’s inventory of hotels, tours and attractions to dig deep into various destinations. “People cannot go into this business blind and not know what it is all about. They need to seek out training, tools and resources to educate themselves and truly serve their clients,” Bachrach says.