ARC’s Verified Travel Consultant (VTC) program, designed to meet needs of the increasing number travel agencies not engaged in issuing air tickets, is growing rapidly.
In an interview with Travel Agent, Lauri Reishus, general manager of industry products and services, and Christopher Flores, VTC program manager, report that 850 travel agency entities have signed on to the program to date. The program now averages 11 VTC applications per week, underscoring the speed of change in the agency distribution channel as agent’s transition from store front to home-based independent status.
Launched in July 2007, the VTC program includes highly experienced and productive agents. ARC VTC surveys reveal that VTC participants earned, on average, $400,000 and nearly 70 percent of the group has 11 plus years of industry experience. “We expect strong growth for the balance of 2009 and into 2010 as the ranks of independent and home based travel professionals increases,” Flores said.
ARC is also adding new product and service capabilities to its program at a steady clip and will hold its first VTC Advisory Board meeting during THETRADESHOW later this month. “The Advisory Board will play an important role in the immediate and future direction of the VTC Program," Reishus said. "The market has responded to the program, and as it continues to grow, ARC’s commitment to offer best in class products, services, capabilities and support grows with it.”
Flores believes the ratio of agents is now 60 percent home-based independents and 40 percent retail/store front agents. The percentage of home-based VTC participants will increase, he says, underscoring the dramatic shift of the home-based/independent agent market.
ARC views VTCs as a group of dedicated travel professionals who enjoy the benefits, products, and services of ARC participation. VTC participants have fulfilled ARC requirements for approval and are recognized as serious and respected travel sellers. Not least in importance, VTC participants gain recognition by way of an eight-digit ARC number widely recognized by industry suppliers.
Reishus and Flores see the VTC program as the “reputable, logical, and viable option” for travel agencies. At $150 annually (pro-rated based on the month approved) it is affordable and helps “brand” travel agencies as professional travel sellers.
VTCs are not ARC-appointed ticketing agencies. They may ticket through host agencies or through air consolidators. Meanwhile, existing ARC participating agencies that want to remain with ARC without issuing air can reclassify as a VTC participant. VTCs are independent agents, single-location agencies, or home-based agencies.
Significantly, VTCs do not take part in the Airline Reporting Agreement (ARA), but adhere to an equally structured VTC Agreement. Applicants undergo ARC's approval process, which is rigorous. This includes: a detailed ownership information check against a database of fraudulent agents; a background and credit check; the submission of a Tax ID number and required state licenses; the submission of a Personal Information Form for owners/officers; an established bank account with ARC; and, if applicable, the return of all ticket stock and plates.
What do agents get? Flores likes to refer to the VTC Program as “all-inclusive,” meaning everything relating to the program is provided at the time of approval (e.g. the ARC Number). In addition to the ARC Number, VTCs gain access to the VTC Tool Kit which includes products and services that help VTCs generate added revenue and value-added services.
ARC MarketPlace, for example, brings together thousands of reputable, travel-related products that generate commissions for travel professionals. ARC MarketPlace includes more than 6,000 destination activities, pre/post excursions, car rentals, and bus tickets, all of which can be offered to clients. ARC MarketPlace provides VTCs with an important source of incremental revenue; revenue that that VTCs welcome during tough economic times, Flores says. Additionally, ARC MarketPlace offers an “affiliate” program that allows consumers to book ARC MarketPlace products and services directly from the VTC’s website and commissions are credited to the travel agent.
Another feature of the VTC Program is the prepaid ARC Travel MasterCard, which is also available through ARC MarketPlace. The ARC Travel MasterCard is accepted at more than 25 million locations worldwide, and the prepaid card is designed to meet the flexible payment needs of vacation travelers, such as student, honeymooners, and families and groups. VTCs can earn 30 to 40 percent commission on the cards sold.
Yet another service offered to VTCs is the Visa and Passport expediting services. VTC clients can travel abroad with a day's notice and the VTC can earn commission on the service sold.
ARC Agent's Choice is another feature useful to VTCs. With the growing emphasis on sustaining travel agent revenue, it has been a growing focus for ARC and the VTC participants. ARC Agent’s Choice’s web-based application processes travel-related transactions through ARC, independent of a VTC’s GDS. Agents can assess clients a fee for the travel services provided using any major credit card. “The average service fee of a VTC is well above the industry average of $25 and VTC utilization of ARC Agent’s Choice is growing rapidly,” Flores says.
Additional services offered under the VTC Tool Kit include the VTC Mark and ARC Check. The VTC Mark can be downloaded at no cost to the VTC and the Mark can be displayed on a VTC’s web site or on business stationery. “It’s an industry credential that our VTCs value” added Flores. “ARC Check is clearly becoming a valuable tool for VTCs. ARC Check provides a quick and easy way for VTC clients and preferred suppliers to verify a VTC’s status within ARC.” When clients and/or suppliers click on a VTC Mark placed on a VTC’s website, the VTC’s status will be confirmed.
VTC participants are also included in the ARC Agency List, a comprehensive resource that carriers, hotels, car rental companies and other travel suppliers use to identify travel professionals. While not an ID card, it is a validator, ARC says.
The VTC program also offers ARC Memo Manager. This electronically processes and settles debit and credit memos, ARC says. It facilitates two-way communication, and makes it easy to accept funds directly to the ARC bank account, including fees from ARC Agent's Choice and commissions from ARC MarketPlace.
While independent home-based agents needs differ greatly, the VTC program is worth examining by any travel professional that wants recognition and tools to help build their businesses. The VTC Program has won awards for its excellence and represents the “new” ARC that capitalizes on the managerial skills, in depth technology and marketing expertise of one of the industry’s powerhouses.