ACC, CTA, MCC, CTC, ABC, DVD…
Alphabet soup. That’s what all that is, alphabet soup. I’m talking, of course, about the seemingly random jumble of letters after the names of many travel professionals. The common ones are CTA (Certified Travel Associate), CTC (Certified Travel Counselor), ACC (Accredited Cruise Counselor), MCC (Master Cruise Counselor), and ECC (Elite Cruise Counselor), but others do exist. These designations signify that the person named has gone through a program of study and real experience in order to increase their knowledge in the travel industry, including site visits and ship inspections, and has even spent their own money and time in traveling to a destination or sailing a cruise ship to REALLY understand what’s what.
The costs of pursuing these certifications can really add up – for example, my own ACC certification cost me about $2,000 in total to complete after paying for coursework, trade show attendance to obtain necessary ship inspections, paying for the cruise experiences required, and marketing for the cruise sales necessary. This does not count the time out of the office, CLIA’s agency registration fee, or the enrollment fee required to begin the certification process. This is not a small expense, and with those kinds of commitments, one has to wonder if professional designations are REALLY worth it. This is even more pronounced when the client has no idea what those designations mean and how they benefit.
To get a better idea of how professional certifications work, I looked toward other industries and occupations that have used certifications to their benefit. Edward Longley, CEO of The Hollingsworth Group, a boutique real estate firm in New York City, currently holds about twelve different certifications, such as the AHS – Accredited Home Specialist and CFS – Certified Financing Specialist. “Most of my clients have not heard of them, but I think they have respect for them,” Longley reports. He emphasizes that he learns a great deal from obtaining the certifications, and though his clients may not know what they mean, they do ask about them. “Once they learn what the certification is, I think they do value it.”
Charity Kuahiwinui, an independent human resources specialist (with a Professional of Human Resources (PHR) designation), notes that when she is working with clients, they have a greater sense of confidence in her abilities, knowledge, and experience merely by the existence of the designation. Further, she assists companies with employee recruitment and finds the designations a great way to filter candidates. “So, yes, the alphabet soup matters – but only as much as we have faith in the credentialing agencies themselves and the severity of the minimum requirements for certification.”
Not everyone places a high value on certifications. Fred Glick of US Mortgage Loans, LLC and US Spaces, Inc. out of Philadelphia, finds the certifications “silly.” “I, along with all the people that work for me have at least attended college. They have common sense, ethics, knowledge of the industry, and how to best service their clients.” Glick has had issues working with others who have many designations because of the lack of common sense or knowledge of the business. “It’s way too easy to get these designations because basically, you sit in a class for two days, and then you get designated.” Glick doesn’t believe the public would know the difference, or even really care – they end up doing business with whomever they have a connection with.
Within the travel industry, there’s a similar disparity, especially with CLIA certifications. Craig Satterfield, one of CLIA’s Elite Cruise Counselor Scholars, reached that certification level motivated by his own passion. “The courses, inspections, cruises, and tests you need to finish were what I wanted to do anyway. It was great to have this ECCS after my name but my plans were for my own satisfaction. I found the time and money to do it, which is considerable when you add it all up.” Satterfield feels that it’s important to toot your own horn about your certifications – no one else will do it for you.” Other agents believe CLIA’s programs to be outdated and generally inapplicable to the industry of today. A common perception is that the suppliers’ training is much more beneficial than the CLIA training, and that the structure of CLIA’s programs is designed to make money for the organization, rather than benefit the agent community.
So, are agents without professional certifications any less ‘legitimate’ than those with certifications? In an industry with little to no barriers to entry and rife with MLM-style groups, could the existence of a certification be a way to differentiate “real” travel agents from those who aren’t as legitimate? The industry in general has had a need for a national certification along the lines of other professional certifications – but with so many facets and niches in the industry, no one test or program has been developed to truly meet a national need. Without a clear purpose for certification, and a clear application to all facets of the industry, certification quickly loses any power among the general public, and even within industry ranks as well.
For this writer, the main benefit of certification was to increase my own knowledge. I wanted to be the best travel professional I could be for my clients, and I felt that meant I had to know as much as I could about my field. Even if I don’t remember everything, I know where to look for the information. At the end of the day, it’s a personal decision – the certification process requires an investment of time and money, and sometimes there is no tangible return on that investment other than your own personal satisfaction. Our certification bodies, CLIA especially, have done a good job of showing the agent community how important making money is over producing quality training materials that are up to date and relevant to the current business climate. Certification at this point comes as a personal choice – does it mean something to you? Could it mean something to those you do business with, either supplier or client? The answer to that question should dictate which direction you head.
Steve Cousino, ACC, CTA, LS has a travel professional since 2005 and currently owns Exclusive Events At Sea (www.exclusiveeventsatsea.com) and Journeys By Steve (www.journeysbysteve.com) with specializations in group cruising, individual ocean & river cruising, and personalized experiences in Europe, especially the British Isles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.