Advisors join a busy industry, but is the training up to par?

As agencies ramp up staff to meet surging consumer demand for their services, they are faced with a growing, and pressing, industry challenge: training quality.

And according to at least one major player in agency training, “Not all education is created equal.”

Diane Petras

That snippet, from an open letter to the industry penned on Jan. 3 by Diane Petras, president of the Travel Institute, sums up training programs that she describes as outdated, incomplete and inaccurate. 

“Studies have shown educated agents are absolutely more successful, making our industry’s renewed focus on education truly impactful,” Petras wrote. “Yet, we know, not all education is created equal.”

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Petras argued that advisors need to choose quality education amid an increasing number of offerings that aren’t quite up to snuff. Her open letter, she said in an email, “is based on a significant number of ‘less-than-robust’ training programs promoted and publicized in ’22. 

“Without naming names, the Travel Institute is often aware of organizations and individuals promoting agent training materials that are outdated, incomplete, inaccurate or biased to a particular product or supplier,” she said. “How does a 10-minute video on any topic qualify an agent as certified or even at all capable? How is training published five-plus years ago with no substantial updates applicable today? How does an agent grow their leadership skills/career with no professional business training?”

The Travel Institute, she said, keeps training relevant with regular updates throughout the year. 

Demand is high for travel advisors

Petras’ letter comes amid growing industry awareness that agent training is especially important as agencies look to onboard advisors to meet the highest consumer demand for agent services in recent memory.

Agencies are hiring, or hoping to hire, at a higher rate than in recent years. In some cases, they are replacing talent lost to other industries during the pandemic. 

While the Travel Institute is working to keep its programs updated, ASTA, too, is bolstering its offerings to keep up with the influx of newbies. Norwegian Cruise Line last year donated $250,000 to ASTA for new-to-industry education efforts, recognizing the need for new, and educated, advisors. The Society is currently using those funds to develop new coursework.

Mark Meader

“We’re looking at it, from an ASTA perspective, as sort of a pathway that provides that clear, step-by-step path for those who are interested in becoming advisors so that they can successfully join the business,” said Mark Meader, senior vice president of industry affairs and education.

Although the Society already has a number of educational assets, Meader said, such as its Verified Travel Advisor program, they are designed for more experienced agents. The new “pathway” will target those interested in entering the industry, helping prospective advisors identify the kind of advisor they want to be, whether it’s one with a corporate focus, an agency employee or an independent contractor, for example.

Meader said ASTA is examining what areas of coursework need to be supplemented or changed. Right now, some of the larger focus is on business ownership and the path to becoming a corporate advisor. “We’re looking at it very holistically,” Meader said.

Like Petras, ASTA also has concerns about some advisor training out there, said Erika Richter, ASTA’s vice president of communications. The Society has developed coursework that touches on its code of ethics, she said, adding that’s something that sets it apart.

Mike Estill, COO of the Western Association of Travel Agencies, contends that the industry lacks a truly effective training process now and is lacking a “laboratory-like setting” in which new agents can train.

Travel schools used to fit the bill, but after airlines capped and then cut commissions and the need for new agents declined, most schools shuttered, Estill said.

Real-world training is often the missing piece

Today’s education does a good job of theoretical training, Estill said, but is missing the practical piece of actually completing bookings. That burden is placed on agency owners, who often don’t have time to train agents, especially when they’re already passing off bookings to other agencies because of their workload.

Mike Estill

He likened his idea to an academic setting: Some courses are lectures, but others have a lab component that requires students to complete a physical task.

“That’s the missing piece of this,” he said. “The feedback I’m getting is [agency owners] don’t feel like the person is ready to take a reservation.”

Estill proposed that a training program in which academic-leaning education is followed by trainees getting leads on two fake trips per day for about three weeks.

After going through the booking process, their work would then be reviewed and graded. To see, for instance, if they booked a noncomissionable vacation home or sent a client to San Jose, Calif., instead of San Jose, Costa Rica. Such training can be done online or in person in more densely populated areas, he said. 

While such programs cost money, Petras ended her letter by encouraging advisors to “dig deep and understand the return on investment for the education you choose.”

“With so many consumers again turning to travel professionals, our industry has the momentum — and a golden opportunity — to recapture the respect and loyalty of countless travelers,” Petras wrote. “This opportunity must not be squandered.”

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