So many options, so little time—how to strategically choose and maximize educational opportunities.
In a fast-changing world, an integral part of any travel advisor’s business is the commitment to continually educate themselves. From new products to enhanced technology options, travel advisors are challenged to keep up with—and ahead of—new possibilities that can enhance their business.
But the educational opportunities can be overwhelming. Suppliers, associations, media and others have taken up the charge to educate with a variety of strategies, including webinars, in-person training sessions, conferences, on-demand training, familiarization trips and other options.
With so many training opportunities available—and limited time to take advantage of them—successful advisors need a strategy for choosing which learning options can best enhance their business, as well as how to maximize the educational experience itself with a before, during and after plan.
The Bottom Line
Quite simply, research shows that education helps agents make more money. A study from The Travel Institute shows that there is a “strong correlation between certification and financial success,” according to The Changing Face of Travel Agents study, released in May 2018. The research shows that those who participated in education that included certification and certificates from The Travel Institute and CLIA, as well as specialist training from The Travel Institute, suppliers and other sources, made almost double in average sales in 2017 over agents who participated in no training.
“This study shows that agents who invest their time in training and education truly benefit in terms of their bottom line,” says Diane Petras, CTIE, president of The Travel Institute. “Training undoubtedly is the key to success and something that is absolutely necessary in today’s competitive world of selling travel.”
The first step in achieving this success “starts with creating—in writing!—a professional growth plan that ties to your specific business goals,” says Petras. “When you’re researching the many educational options, you should always ask yourself, ‘How is this going help me achieve my business and personal growth goals?’”
Kathy Mehring, regional director, Midwest for the four tour brands of Funjet Vacations, Blue Sky Tours, Southwest Vacations and United Vacations, recommends a strategic approach to education. “Run the data on your business. Find out what you are selling, what your top-selling destinations and hotels are, then align yourself with companies you want to work with,” she says. “By doing that, you can figure out if you should enhance your capabilities or take a risk on a new destination, and whether the risk is worth the time, investment and energy needed to make it successful.”
Aware that making time for education can be a challenge for busy travel advisors, Mehring suggests travel advisors “set an educational monthly appointment for yourself in your calendar to dedicate the time to learning a destination, hotel or whatever subject you are passionate about.”
But it’s not just deciding what topics you’re passionate about—it’s also a question of the most effective way for any given travel advisor to learn about those topics. That can depend on individual learning styles, the topic being explored, and more mundane considerations such as time and money. Here’s a look at some of the possibilities, as well as strategies for getting the most out of them.
There’s nothing like a familiarization (fam) trip to gain first-hand knowledge about a destination or product. Hosted by destinations, resorts, tour operators, media and other suppliers and educational providers, fams offer knowledge opportunities beyond most other educational methods, but also come with a higher commitment of time and energy.
“Fams are a great opportunity to get to know a property or destination in an immersive way,” says Jill Hiers, CTA, ACC, owner of Custom Travel Professionals, LLC, based in Clinton, Mississippi. She adds that fams can help agents become better salespeople. “Agents sell destinations and resorts that they have the confidence to sell. If they have first-hand experience, they can confidently speak about their experience and expertly guide their clients,” she notes. “This confidence allows them to then be a leader in the industry and an expert for their clients—which translates into increased sales and growth.”
Lori Ware, a travel agent with Travel by Beth, in the Champaign, Illinois office, feels that fams provide the “best bang for your buck” in terms of education. But she also does her part to ensure the experience is as productive as possible: If the fam is to a destination she’s never been to, she does online training or watches a webinar before she leaves on the trip.
She also lets her colleagues and her clients know that she is heading to the destination in case there is anything specific they want to know. Once there, Ware takes notes and photos of everything from the airport to guest rooms, restaurants and the beach.
Petras says agents on fam trips should not wait until the trip is over to gather their thoughts about the destination. “You should be taking notes every night on the benefits of what you experienced that day, detailing the unique experiences you had and how you plan on promoting this product to your clients,” she says. “Don’t wait until you return home to capture those details. They will never be as vivid—or helpful—as when you’re in the moment.”
Savvy agents also use social media to their advantage during and after fam trips. To that end, Mehring advises creating a “photo shot list” as part of your pre-departure plan to ensure you capture all the key elements. Ware posts photos from her trip on Facebook along with a deal or promotion when she returns from her trip. Hiers may live stream on Facebook while she is on site or “be in the moment and take still photos.” She adds, “I gather a list of past clients who may be interested in that property so that I can tag them in social media initiatives.”
Ware also shares her fam experiences with other agents in their agency upon her return. “We have a monthly meeting in our agency and I give a report to my colleagues on my likes and dislikes of an area,” she says.
Patti Lehman, owner and luxury travel advisor for Travel 67 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, finds it’s important after a fam to follow up with all of the contacts she made while there so that she can add them to her “bank of resources.”
Online education can come in the form of webinars and self-directed courses from the suppliers themselves or from agent education sites like The Travel Institute. Ware likes the flexibility of training online on her own time. She keeps a list of different online education opportunities and ticks them off as she completes the courses.
Lehman sees webinars as “a good investment of 30 minutes to an hour of my time at least once a week.” She adds: “Getting this snapshot of a product or destination can then lead to more questions or research on my part, but it at least keeps me current on what is going on in my industry.”
Where online education offers a quick way to brush up or increase your knowledge on your own time, in-person education and trade shows, either hosted by a supplier or industry associations, remains invaluable for establishing industry connections in addition to learning about the subject matter.
“This is invaluable if your clients ever have an issue or need extra attention for special occasions,” says Hiers. To maximize her time and efforts on site, she makes “a list of the preferred suppliers and hoteliers that will be in attendance, as well as a list of questions that I would like to ask. After, I send a follow-up email to help to solidify that relationship.”
In addition to attending two trade shows a year to network, Ware likes to participate in supplier day training sessions or training dinners held nearby. She sees them as chances to expand her colleague base. “It’s good to meet other agents in the area and find out what they’re working on or not working on,” she says. Her agency also uses the opportunity to showcase commitment to their clients, by sharing the agency’s attendance at trade shows on social media to let clients know they are continuously expanding their knowledge for them. An example of a post might be “We’ve met lots of suppliers to help with your next vacation,” she says.
It’s All in the Application
Education in all its forms remains integral to the necessary and evolving growth process of an agent, stresses Mehring. “Everyone should be open to change, and to adapt and learn,” she says. “If you do that, you will continue to be successful. The way to do that is with education, learning and opening yourself up to doing something differently, challenging yourself and holding yourself accountable to those milestone goals that you set.”
Whatever type of education an agent participates in, Petras sees the most important part of the opportunity as the application of the knowledge afterwards. You need to “apply the knowledge you have learned to consult with your clients, listen to their needs and move them through the sales process. It doesn't matter if it is a webinar, an article, a fam or a conference—if you do nothing with the information, you haven’t really learned anything, have you? If you don’t act on it, it was essentially a waste of your time (and probably your money). Every couple of days, ask yourself—how did I apply my new knowledge to my job?”