I’ve spent the last three weeks talking to about three dozen travel advisors and industry executives – with different roles, tenures, agency specialties and business models – trying to understand what role “education” plays in supporting travel advisor success – and how these programs can help advisors through this COVID storm.
If I had to boil down their feedback into three key learnings, here are the points I take away:
- Supplier and destination programs need to reduce “training” about features and benefits, and focus more on helping advisors generate quality sales leads that convert.
- The most valued supplier partners offer time-tested sales and marketing strategies, tactics, and resources with advisors that help them achieve measurable goals.
- The industry has too many education programs that crisscross and overlap, often leaving advisors confused about where they should invest their time and money.
Nearly all of the advisors I spoke with also agreed that they would like the industry to be more transparent about who their ideal clients are and give advisors benchmarks on which marketing assets work best.
“This whole period made me step back and ask myself about what I want to overhaul in my business. What do I want to sell?” said Diane DeWitt Frisch, owner at Diane Frisch Destinations. “What I’ve decided is that, going forward, I am going to sell where I can really add value – where it is difficult for people to do it themselves. And I am going to align with suppliers and destinations who understand that and are going to help me get there.”
Frisch said: “This week, someone found me on the internet, because my marketing is customized about me. He owns a couple of banks and wants to do a luxury Alaska cruise. Another client who found me wants a villa in Tuscany. It’s about going deeper into the mindset of the client and the experience we can promise them.”
Over the past six months, Jeanie Kim Colclough, founder and owner at Riveting Trips, Los Gatos, has also been thinking through who her ideal client is, “and who can provide me with the information to help me acquire them? Are those suppliers engaged with me in sharing information, or are they guarded? At the end of the day, this is a sales job. The glory of traveling is great. But if I can’t make my sales forecast, being able to travel on agent rates doesn’t do me any good.”
Memo to Suppliers and Destinations: Time to Up Your Game
Unfortunately, Colclough, DeWitt Frisch and others said, too many supplier and destination education programs focus on features and benefits that don’t distinguish one company from another.
“You go to some of these presentations, and they all run together,” DeWitt Frisch said. “I want to tell them: ‘What makes YOU special as a supplier for my client?’ That’s what matters to me.”
“An inside cabin is an inside cabin,” said Glenda Beagles, a travel advisor and founder at Travel Business Coaching, remarking about how many cruise company presentations run through endless lists of details like square space measurements and room features. “We can look all of that up on a website. What we need to know is what will the experience be like for our client.”
“There are too many suppliers and destinations out there, hosting education webinars, and all they’re doing is reading scripts with standard PowerPoint presentations,” said Angela Hughes, owner and president at Trips & Ships Luxury Travel, Orlando, Florida. “That doesn’t help me grow my market share or develop long term strategies.”
Beagles bemoans the fact that so many supplier and destination sales programs follow “the path of least resistance,” features and benefits training. “Stories are what sells. They’re so much more memorable for clients. Teach advisors how to tell the stories that get clients to close. Travelers can find the details on Expedia,” she said.
Rhonda Feimster, luxury travel specialist at 1 Bag Travel, near Washington, D.C., echoed that sentiment. “What’s the marketing plan for your product, your island? Teach me that, to help me market to my clients.”
Another dilemma is that there isn’t enough “graduated programming” based on tenure and skill sets, especially at industry conferences where suppliers and destinations have to reduce their “training” to the lowest common denominator in the room – new advisors.
“Someone like me, who has more experience, doesn’t need features and benefits training. I want a level of programming designed to help me take my business to a higher level,” Feimster said.
Patti Kollar, Owner/Travel Advisor at Packntravel, in Sellersville, Pennsylvania, believes suppliers and destinations have reduced the quality of their education programs to accommodate the high volume of new advisors coming through multi-level-marketing programs the last few years.
“The MLMs don’t train these people, so suppliers and destinations have to accommodate them.”
Help Them Be Better Business Owners
Having operated from a deficit since mid-March, the industry will be in a fight for market share the next few years, and that will require agency owners having “more of a business owner mentality,” said Ashley Hunter, Avoya Travel’s senior vice president of strategic operations and partnerships.
She noted how more than 500 Avoya independent advisors maxed out a day-long program the network put together this summer to focus on more of the legal and finance aspects of running a travel agency.
Today’s hard times have made more agency owners realize they need to improve their business skills, and examine education programs like the Verified Travel Advisor (VTA) offered by the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), and the Travel Institute’s CTA, CTC and CTIE programs.
For some advisors, knowing which program to invest their time and money in can be difficult. “All of these programs need to get together,” said Susan Hoffman Shure, owner, Susan Shure Travel, Monroe, North Carolina. An advisor for 18 months, Hoffman Shure has earned her CTA from the Travel Institute, is a Travel Leaders Certified Luxury Specialist and earned her VTA certification. “Can we get everyone to work together across these different platforms?” she asked.
Approximately 530 advisors, of the 1,200 enrolled, in ASTA’s VTA program have been certified since the program started in 2017. The VTA program teaches nine different business disciplines with relatively little overlap with the education offered by host agencies and member networks, said ASTA senior vice president, marketing, industry affairs and education, Mark Meader.
“We work hand in hand with many host agencies and others to ensure this to be the case and many come to ASTA to incorporate our Verified Travel Advisor Certification into their programs,” Meader said.
VTA graduates are featured on ASTA.org and on ASTA’s consumer facing website TravelSense.org where VTA graduates come up first.
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.