Jamie Biesiada is on leave. This insight originally appeared in the Home-based Agent eNewsletter Nov. 28, 2019.
Earlier this month, nine travel professionals completed certifications from the Travel Institute during CruiseWorld in Fort Lauderdale, taking their certification tests during the conference and being awarded their new credentials there.
Guida Botelho, director of education for the Travel Institute, said CruiseWorld planners approached the Institute about offering certification tests to STAR (Select Travel Advisor Recognition) Program participants. Those interested had to register for a certification course in July and commit to completing it and any other requirements prior to CruiseWorld.
In total, eight advisors signed up for the Certified Travel Associate (CTA) course and one signed up for the Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) course. All were ready to take the test at CruiseWorld on Nov. 13, and thanks to same-day grading by the Travel Institute, all found out they passed.
"It was extremely rewarding to visit with each student in person and in real-time, take in their comments and feedback about the program, share their emotions and then send them off more prepared than ever for travel industry success," Botelho said.
The group that received CTA and CTC certifications at CruiseWorld represents a small fraction of those certified over the years. The Travel Institute believes that certification sets advisors apart as true professionals.
"In our competitive marketplace, it's critical for serious agents to stand out as professionals," Botelho said. "Clearly, agents do that first and foremost by digging deep and working hard each day."
But by also committing to certification courses like those offered by the Travel Institute, advisors show they are committed to a higher level of education. It also proves their capabilities.
Certification also gives advisors an important thing, especially in a sales industry: confidence.
"The No. 1 piece of feedback we hear consistently from our graduates is the sense of confidence and knowledge gained through the program," Botelho said. "They feel more prepared and are more ready than ever to deliver greater value each day to their customers."
The Travel Institute isn't alone in offering certification to help elevate travel professionals. ASTA offers its Verified Travel Advisor program. A number of consortia and host agencies also run their own education and training programs.
But there are some that believe the industry is ripe to move to the next level and require some kind of professional licensing for travel advisors, similar to standards that professionals like lawyers and Realtors must uphold.
In recent years, agents have been entering the industry in record numbers, said Diane Petras, president of the Travel Institute. It's a positive, because it brings in new talent, but it also poses challenges if the new entrants don't have, or aren't interested in seeking, education and guidance.
"While many ICs take their role seriously and take the initiative to become educated through the Travel Institute or another organization to best serve their clients, many do not and are simply attempting to learn as they go," Petras said.
That, in turn, has concrete effects, she said, like increasing call center costs as well as more unquantified costs, like eroding public trust if consumers interact with uneducated agents.
Petras, however, said licensing will only be a benefit to the industry if two factors are fulfilled: the end consumer is kept in mind as the party that the industry is trying to protect through licensing; and the industry self-regulates to ensure it sees the maximum value of licensing.
"This is tough due to the financial focus of most organizations and the fact that initiatives that impact a company's profits are not always supported," said Petras, who added that "state licensing is not a guarantee of improved value. Oftentimes, state licensing is simply the cost of entry and an additional revenue stream for a state, with no incremental value for consumers."
To that end, Petras said, the travel industry needs to self-regulate so training and certification actually demonstrate competency -- something that doesn't necessarily need a formal licensing process.
"The bottom line is that there is a distinct difference between a travel agent and a travel professional," Petras said. "I am in awe of the true travel professionals, who balance industry knowledge, government requirements, supplier nuances, technology and more while providing impeccable customer service to their travelers.
"These travel professionals and their organizations ensure [on an ongoing basis] that they have the education and experience needed to serve travelers and successfully represent the profession and the industry. This is what all individuals and organizations in the travel industry need to recognize and strive for themselves."