Calling for a renewed industry wide dialogue on the future of travel agents, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) deserves high praise for its new paper, From Travel Agent to Travel Advisor: Defining, Elevating and Promoting the Role of Travel Agents for the Next Generation.
So too does ASTA, who collaborated with CLIA on the study and who will launch on May 14 a new nationwide membership campaign. Tony Gonchar, ASTA’s CEO, calls it the “Join and Be Counted Initiative” and reports it has already gained solid support from agency consortia leaders.
The CLIA study deserves a close look by all agents and agencies, industry suppliers, destinations, consortia, host agencies and associations.
The ASTA membership initiative also deserves attention as well as support and encouragement. ASTA - now with about 25 percent of agencies - needs a broader base of support from the industry.
But both groups are making a key point: the travel agent is indispensible in today’s market and needs competent leadership who can effectively lead and represent agents and agencies.
The CLIA study asks key questions that will impact agents, including what should the future role of agents be and how will it evolve? How do we better communicate and promote the benefits of using a qualified travel agent to the consumer, particularly the younger generations that have not been exposed to the value and services agents provide, CLIA asks.
ASTA‘s Gonchar believes agents may be losing ground with a new, younger tech savvy generation of travelers. “Todays consumers have higher expectations," he said, while “suppliers are more dependent on agents performance and competence.” He believes that the re-branded, re-vitalized ASTA deserves broader support – including support from consortia, franchisers, agent owned groups and host agencies.
The CLIA paper urges a dialogue that evaluates the current status of travel agents and calls on the organizations and associations within the travel and tourism industry – “who all rely on and represent agents as a critical distribution channel” – to join with CLIA to better define the role, value and requirements of the travel agent in the 21st century.
CLIA’s call to arms is timely and pertinent. And validates ASTA’s Gonchar’s belief that that travel agents need skilled professional representation. He cites the regulatory challenges in the form of Department of Transportation rule making and the flood of tax and regulatory policies being imposed or threatened by Congress and federal agencies.
As well, he notes, there are endless proposals on the state and local levels to tax or regulate agents and the travel industry. Travel agents interests have to be skillfully defended and without ASTA agents are vulnerable.
The CLIA paper offers real insights into the important role of travel agents within the larger travel and tourism industry (including fresh data on agents performance), the history, evolution and continued value proposition of the travel agent industry, and what CLIA sees are the next steps for guiding the transformation and ensuring the viability of the travel agent industry.
“With this knowledge, we can better adapt to evolving shifts in agent and consumer demographics, education and training resources, and innovations in technology that will impact the future. Most importantly, by adapting, we can drive growth,” CLIA says.
CLIA recommends building a set of industry-wide goals which the collective industry can agree to pursue.
Research to better understand the market. “Through targeted qualitative research, we can more fully understand the expectations of today’s travel consumers, particularly, Gen X and Gen Y generations, to ensure that we identify the skills, expertise and attributes agents need to better meet those expectations."
Communications to re-establish the value of travel agents. “There is a need for broad public outreach – with a focus on younger generations – that effectively communicates the value of working with a professional travel advisor.”
Education of the new workforce. “It is critical that the industry invest in education and the promotion of vocations in travel and tourism to build a foundation of skills and experience that can be leveraged into rewarding careers across different demographics and career stages."
Ways to build and leverage credibility. “To strengthen the viability of the industry, we will need to provide and support professional development and certification programs that promote high-level standards and will in turn win the trust of the consumer.”
Opportunities to deploy grassroots advocates. “Within CLIA, the travel industry and educational institutions there are hundreds of thousands of potential grassroots advocates who, with the right tools and motivation, can help us amplify the message that yesterday’s travel agents are transforming into today’s travel advisors.”
Gonchar agrees, citing the importance of ASTA own grassroots network, to respond to crisis and mobilize support. He agrees with CLIA that ASTA and travel-related companies have a responsibility to drive travel industry growth to enhancing the overall sales and distribution of travel products and to shape the future direction of the industry.
“Travel advisors play a powerful, yet often overlooked role, and rather than taking on the challenges posed in this paper as disparate sectors of the travel industry, we are calling upon experts across the industry to begin the dialogue that highlights the full value of travel advisors and their role in the future of the travel industry,” CLIA says.
“With the expertise of travel industry associations, travel and hospitality companies, universities and travel agency leaders, we will be better positioned to communicate the industry’s relevance and shape the revitalization of travel,” CLIA says.
The bottom line is that travel advisors are well served by ASTA and CLIA and these organizations deserve the support of professional agents.