ASTA officials hosted a press conference at the ASTA Global Convention in San Diego this week to provide further details on the travel agency association’s new ASTA Verified Travel Advisor (VTA) program.
Travel agents can earn their VTA certification by passing all nine courses in the program within 12 months. The courses are: Advanced Public Speaking; Ethics for Travel Advisors; Legal Overview for the Travel Agency Industry; Marketing YOU! Promoting Your Value; Project Management and Planning for the Travel Advisor; Real World Sales Tactics; The Art and Science of Negotiation; Agency Relationships and the Law; and U.S. Travel Agency Regulatory Compliance 3rd Edition.
Course content will be available through ASTA and also through an arrangement with Questex, which runs Travel Agent University, said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of ASTA. Questex is also the owner of TravelAgentCentral.com.
Kerby was quite clear, however, that anyone who earns the VTA certification and wants to recertify it year after year will have to remain an ASTA member. That’s in large part because they will need to agree to the ASTA Code of Ethics, a vital part of the association’s mission.
“The code of ethics is one of the most important parts of the certification and of what people sign up for when they become members of ASTA. So anyone who takes our courses, uses the ASTA Verified Travel Advisor certification and logo, has to maintain membership,” said Kerby.
The program has thus far been kept under wraps as ASTA officials were in the midst of preparing for their annual convention. However, with the conclusion of the San Diego meeting, travel agents should watch for more news to be made on the program, especially since Kerby and his team have been in discussion with travel agency network executives to support it. Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, has already endorsed the program, according to officials, and more industry leaders are expected to do so. Kerby said he and his team are also in talks with the executives at the major travel agency corporations.
“We had a few agents who beta-tested some of the modules for us and they were very excited about the content,” said Kerby, who added as well that ASTA’s Premium Members have also given the programs a test drive. “We've talked to some of our consortia partners and some of our larger agencies and we're working out both bi-membership deals right now,” he said, adding that some travel agency owners will want to purchase the program for their agents.
News of the program will be pushed out to travel agents through ASTA’s SmartBrief newsletter, which reaches 30,000 recipients, as well as through ASTA’s own daily news push.
“We have many electronic ways to get to our members. We have 200,000 people that come to the ASTA website every month; that’s not insignificant,” said Kerby. “ASTA will be using all of its platforms to make sure we get the word out and that there are criteria that have been established.
“Anyone who wants to distinguish themselves from their peers by taking the course will have that opportunity,” he said.
The pricing structure works like this:
If an agent is not a current ASTA member, the VTA registration fee includes a one-year membership. The program costs are: $399 per person for ASTA members; $598 (includes ASTA membership for one year) for a Non-Member Independent Travel Advisor; and $729 (includes ASTA agency membership for one year) for a Non-Member Travel Advisor.
Kerby said that while there are other certification programs out there for travel agents, ASTA’s role is to be more holistic for travel agents. “Our mission is to help certify agents to make sure that they're competent, professional, and ethical. That's our job.”
When asked why such a program hasn't been launched by ASTA before, Kerby said, “I have no idea why it didn't happen before I arrived at ASTA. But if you're talking about the last three or four years, we were looking at an arrangement with The Travel Institute, but decided to pursue our own instead.” Important to note as well is that ASTA had already launched the DOT course two-and-a-half years ago and the ethics course last June.
“The core courses that set this certification apart from other certifications is that we are offering education in areas where only ASTA has a level of expertise and that's in DOT regulations and ethical standards,” said Erika Richter, ASTA’s director of communications, at the press conference. “Those are the core component courses of the nine modules that you won't find that anywhere else.”
How will consumers learn about the new VTA program?
Kerby said that ASTA’s board of directors has “made a six-figure commitment to consumer awareness this year, which was bolstered by our chapter presidents and the generosity of Carnival Cruise Lines, so we already have great partners helping us to make investments in consumer awareness. So as you see things moving forward, we're definitely going to use the resources we have to advise consumers that there is another level of professionalism out there. We certainly stand beside all ASTA members and anyone agrees to adhere to the code of ethics, and pays their dues, and acts in an ethical way. But now that there's another level, we're definitely going to promote that as well.”
Richter echoed remarks that Kerby made during his address at ASTA’s general session on Monday, which noted that more and more travelers are using travel advisors. “And with more travel advisors entering this industry, the question actually becomes, ‘How do I find the best travel advisor?’ And that's where ASTA is the answer. This is a way of distinguishing our travel advisors based on our standards,” said Richter.
Indeed, in launching the program, ASTA in a press release said: “Earning the VTA certification demonstrates dependability, integrity and trustworthiness in support of the consumer. The program is a tool that will allow ASTA members to further enhance their professional development and credibility with consumers, suppliers and even the government. Becoming an ASTA Verified Travel Advisor also means that ASTA has verified your knowledge of the core legal, ethical and regulatory framework that encompasses the business of selling travel.”
ASTA said that the majority of courses take between an hour and an hour and a half to complete, and consist of a manual, online video and exam. Agents will receive a certificate of completion after passing each exam, and will be awarded a VTA certificate once they have successfully completed all nine courses within 12 months.
Travel agents can enroll in the program at ASTA.org/VTA.