Nearly two dozen travel agents have completed the American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) new ASTA Verified Travel Advisor (VTA) program, and the organization has plans to have at least 80 graduates celebrate at this year’s Global Convention in Washington, D.C.
The nine-course program includes modules like “Real World Sales Tactics,” “The Art and Science of Negotiation,” and “Agency Relationships and the Law,” as well as a refresher course on ASTA’s code of ethics.
“The response from agents and suppliers has been excellent, and we are seeing new enrollments coming in each day as we hit the road and promote it more at ASTA chapter meetings and industry events,” said Ann Chamberlin, president of ASTA’s National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA). She said there are approximately 160 enrollees actively engaged or in the process of finalizing VTA enrollment.
Largay Travel, Waterbury, Connecticut, has graduated four team members, said President Amanda S. Klimak, CTIE, “and many more are signing up for it. The agents that we have had taking it are seasoned with a strong background in the business. But even they were shocked about what they learned, skills about closing a sale, collaborative travel planning.”
The company, which also has more than 100 independent contractors (ICs) in its host agency, is discussing with ASTA a way to subsidize the cost for more agents “because it is such great value,” Klimak said.
Chamberlin said she is seeing more responses like Largay’s rising across the U.S. at both agencies and industry suppliers. “I’ll attend a NACTA/ASTA chapter meeting, and present about VTA, and the feedback is there is no duplication of this anywhere,” she said.
Each module takes about 75 minutes to complete, and some agents have reported completing the full curriculum in about 11 days.
The VTA costs $399 for ASTA members, and $598 for nonmembers who are independent advisors, such as home-based agents or ICs. ASTA also has a $729 fee for nonmembers who work for large agencies and hosts.
For nonmembers, the fee includes a one-year ASTA membership. Anyone earning certification will need to renew membership in order to maintain their VTA certification.
The majority of the courses consist of a manual, online video and exam; and students have 12 months to complete them all. After passing each course exam, advisors receive a certificate of course completion. They are awarded a VTA certificate once they have successfully completed all nine courses.
Sponsorships and scholarships will accelerate growth
ASTA and NACTA are actively negotiating with industry suppliers to help sponsor scholarships and other marketing and development needs, to help accelerate VTA awareness and enrollments. Hilton Hotels’ $10,000 sponsorship last year is funding each ASTA Chapter president’s VTA participation in the program.
Several suppliers expressed tremendous interest at a recent ASTA Allied Marketing meeting, Chamberlin said, and she is working with a cruise line to bulk buy enrollment for their BDMs. She added that at least one major host agency is promoting VTA to their independent contractors.
As more agents complete the course, ASTA will then need to work with those agents to help market the value of the VTA designation. Chamberlin said that ASTA will be providing VTA certified agents with a special designation on its Travelsense agency search webpage.
Klimak spoke about the benefits the program is bringing through higher and faster close rates, and believes agents should look at enrollment as an investment in growing their business.
One agent told her how it is speeding up her booking process. “They’re asking better questions right off the bat when a sales lead comes in. That’s making her more efficient, and saving time. She also spoke about how her itinerary presentations are more emotional, with better descriptions, and leverage more photos,” Klimak said.
Given the penetration of online bookings into travel reservations, Klimak is looking forward to the time when the VTA label will immediately identify to consumers that an agent is head and shoulders above the transactional experience they have online.
Agents need to look at the VTA certification “as a level of professionalism that tells the public they are reliable experts,” she said.