Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

Nolan Burris, an industry educator and talent development consultant with Signature Travel Network, will never forget one particular business card a travel agent once gave him at a trade show.

"It said, 'We are specialists in' and a little arrow pointing to the back," Burris said. The back was so cluttered with topics and destinations, he said, that "you couldn't even read it. Like, dude, you're not a specialist — that's not specializing."

The Travel Institute recently released data showing that agents who have certifications or specialist training make more money than their peers — in some cases, significantly more.

But it does raise the question; how many certifications are too many?

"It's tough to specify a number when it comes to the importance of life-long learning," said Diane Petras, president of the Travel Institute. "Ongoing education is critical to professional development, especially in the travel industry where things are constantly changing as it relates to suppliers, destinations, niche markets, social media and overall business development."

The Travel Institute requires agents to maintain their certifications from the Institute by earning continuing education units each year, Petras said. She also encourages agents to gain more advanced certifications after they've completed more basic training.

Many said the actual number of certifications and the amount of specialist training depends on the agent and their business model, but most cautioned to avoid too many.

"If you're on a mission to collect certifications, you're not a specialist anymore, you're a generalist," Burris said. "You might know more than someone who didn't take a bunch of classes, but I think it's not so much just that the customer is looking for a certified professional, they're looking for a specialist certified professional."

Gina Weyer, vice president of member services and training for Signature, said if she was an agent starting out today, she would pick a few destinations to specialize in, then something broader, like honeymoons.

That approach would help an agent specialize, but also help insulate them if a destination they focus on sees diminishing interest or experiences a dip in tourism.

Jennifer Campbell, managing director of professional development and agency services at Virtuoso, said the number of certifications or specialty trainings an agent completes should correspond with their interests in the industry.

"I feel like it's specific to the adviser," she said. "I mean, there are those who just want to do one thing and just want to focus on their culinary expertise or the wellness or adventure or family travel. But then there are some who want to be a little bit good at everything."

Campbell urged newer agents to base training on the kind of travel they want to sell and seek out the certifications that make sense.

"I think it's easier to eat an elephant one bite at a time," she said.

ASTA recommends agents start with its Verified Travel Advisor course, then pick further specialties from there, according to Ann Chamberlin, senior vice president of membership, marketing and strategic partnerships.

"I think that they should also think about who their ideal client is and how they want to specialize their service," she said. "So, [who] are the customers they want to attract?"

Petras urged agents to, above all, continue their education.

"Ongoing education is not only valuable," she said, "it's necessary to be considered a professional."
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