For decades, the principal focus of travel advisor training has been to educate agents about destinations, individual vendors and tools – like GDS. But over the last 4-5 years, more organizations are responding to an increasing demand for business skills, everything from understanding financial statements, to customer relationship management, to enhanced sales skills.
As a result, travel agents are increasingly focusing their training investments on being better business owners, and everyone, from the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) to consortia to host agencies to franchisors, is rolling out programs to better educate agents about subjects that are not specific to travel.
This spring, Protravel International, a division of Travel Leaders, launched a training and business development program called “The Journeys.” Separated into three 6-month tracks (the Professional Advisor Journey, the Supplier Journey, and the Traveler Journey), the program is aimed at training existing Protravel advisors and the next generation of agents.
Up until recently, “we did a lot of process training, how to book travel, how to use different booking tools, but there weren’t a lot of people in the industry asking agents ‘How are you going to set up your marketing plan, your business plan?’” said Protravel’s President Becky Powell.
The Professional Advisor Journey training and curriculum features subjects like professional development and lead generation. The Traveler Journey features “client cultivation” sales skills for destinations and itineraries, and exclusive Protravel offers.
“The majority of people coming into this business today say it’s because of their passion for travel. It’s our job to point out they are a business owner now,” Powell said.
Similarly, San Diego, California-based Avoya Travel will launch, in June, a business training program as part of its existing host agent training, said Tammie Richie, the group’s associate vice president.
Called “Lead to Mastermind” (L2MM), the training program is all about “what does it mean to be an entrepreneur,” Richie said. “We start at the very basics, including creating a business plan. Most agents don’t think about a business plan. They say, ‘I love to travel. My sister always asks me to plan her vacations, so maybe I can make this a business.’ Then they find out, it’s not that easy.”
“We ask questions like ‘How many hours can you put into that business?’ ‘What are your expectations in terms of income?’ ‘Is that realistic, given your current situation?’”
While questions and conversations like these are initiated earlier, when a prospective agent engages with a “Join Avoya” team member, L2MM goes deeper and provides more resources.
“There’s more talk about aligning with suppliers, forecasting with average commission rates and close rates, tweaking specialties. We work with them to understand, ‘How many sales leads are you going to need at that average commission to hit your sales targets?’” Richie said.
Steve Phillips, senior director of education and training at Travelsavers (whose parent company owns Travel Market Report), was brought in specifically because “senior leadership saw the need for business coaching on top of the Travelsavers travel products and services,” he said.
Phillips started with the largest and most elite group of Travelsavers agents, but has been developing different content, delivered through a variety of channels, for the last six years. About two years ago, Travelsavers started offering more business management training to even small, independent agents.
For example, Phillips said, agents learn how to dissect a financial statement. “We’re teaching things like ‘What are your true yields for a product?’ ‘What is the ROI (return on investment) on your marketing dollars?’” he said. “’What’s the cost of acquiring a customer?’”
“In today’s agency, with online marketing and social media, you really have to understand what ROI you should expect for your investment, and how to calculate that,” said Phillips.
Training for every agent, of every size, at every phase
Phillips and others are developing their trainings based on a variety of factors, including tenure. “For someone new to the industry, but with some business experience, it may be about how to apply traditional business operations to the unique nature of the travel industry,” he said. “But we find that even for someone who has been in the industry for long time, they’re doing things a certain way, but finding they can’t keep up anymore. They need a different approach.”
He also believes that training needs to be specific to the agency’s annual sales revenue. “A $20 million business is very different from a $5 million business,” Phillips said.
When a new franchise joins Cruise Planners, the franchisee attends a six-day intensive training at the company’s Fort Lauderdale headquarters. While the time includes product training with suppliers, and training on Cruise Planners marketing programs and technology tools, franchisees also spend time learning business skills.
Given the varied skill and experience levels of individuals entering the travel advisor field these days, “we decided, let’s carve out some time to help them understand what their responsibilities are as a business owner,” said Theresa Scalzitti, vice president of sales and marketing for Cruise Planners. “Someone could have been a stay-at-home mom, or a corporate person who didn’t have an owner’s responsibilities. Being a business owner could be brand new to them.”
Protravel launched its first class of advisors in its new Journeys program in April. Originally geared for new entrants, the program is attracting current advisors with a few years’ experience “who say they want to take their business to the next level. They feel stuck, and are asking themselves, ‘How do I grow this?’” Powell said.
Avoya sequences its training for advisors, starting with its entry-level Avoya University, which trains advisors on the various tools and systems Avoya uses to attract prospects, generate sales leads, and move prospects through the sales pipeline.
Initial training focuses on getting a new-to-travel person “up to speed, from what is a travel agent, to what does it mean to own my own business. Then we work them into sales, and what brand elements are and how to use them,” Richie said.
Once an Avoya agent knows how to claim a lead, they are enrolled in the host’s “Leads 2 Booking” (L2B) program, including one-on-one coaching with a leads coach. Here, agents learn how to “dissect” a lead, Richie said, discovering what their “urgency points” are and ensuring that the agents know how to propose the right vacation offerings.
The new L2MM program fills a gap between the L2B program, and the company’s Mastermind program, which is a high-touch peer group for Avoya agents who qualify by hitting annual and quarterly sales targets.
Avoya also offers vendor-hosted, at-sea training Success Academy programs six times a year, drilling even deeper into training for things like legal issues, hiring employees or adding ICs, and social media marketing.
Using training as a marketing tool
While all of the agency executives Travel Market Report interviewed said that their professional development programs were primarily designed to make their agency owners more successful, they also acknowledged the need to offer more training as a reason to join their network.
“It’s a key point of differentiation” for Travelsavers’ members, Phillips said.
That differentiation can also translate to the agent’s marketing, Powell said. “Enhancing your training empowers you to be regarded as a highly skilled luxury travel advisor. The most respected travel advisors have a persona, they’re perceived as professional, which pays off in other ways.”
Finally, Richie and others commented about how the travel industry is constantly changing, and that education can be an insurance policy against failure. “If you treat any business casually, it will become a casualty. You need to stay on top of trends and changes to reduce your company’s liability. You cannot sit there and be an island anymore. The industry is changing much too fast,” Richie said.
“If you ever quit learning, get out,” said Richie. “Otherwise, you could become a danger to your clients, and to your business.”