Strong roots in their communities, diverse backgrounds and a steady commitment to professional growth are among the key features of travel professionals who are members of the 2,500 member strong National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA).
In an interview with Travel Agent, Ann van Leeuwen, the newly named vice president of NACTA, offers a fresh perspective on the growth and achievements of professional travel agents, traditionally described as home-based, or independent contractors. Van Leeuwen, who joined NACTA last month with 23 years of travel industry experience, has both the Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) and Certified Travel Industry Executive (CTIE) designations from the Travel Institute. She reports directly to Tony Gonchar, ASTA’s CEO.
"The Independent Travel Consultant profession is the only growing segment of the travel selling industry today. As travel agency consolidation continues with the mega and regional national agency groups acquiring small struggling travel agencies, many travel professionals realize they can be their own boss and business owner. After all they’ve grown their own client book of business, developed multiple group followings through their special interests, and are well connected in their neighborhoods and communities. Why shouldn’t these travel professionals earn their maximum commission potential?" van Leeuwen asks.
Among the strengths of NACTA members are diverse destination and supplier specialties, and more than a few creative marketing initiatives, she notes. "For example one member I recently met at a Pacific Northwest NACTA meeting started her own cancer awareness travel club. After going through her own challenges with cancer, she connected with many women and formed a large group following where they cruise and travel together to share experiences and enjoy their life by vacationing as a group."
Other NACTA members are enjoying their second career as Travel Professionals, she notes. "In the Tampa, FL market one of our Chapter Directors was a former military commander where he has a following with friends and colleagues in the military sector. Another Member and Chapter Director in San Antonio, TX traveled extensively with her husband and when they returned to the U.S. she decided to put that knowledge to use and become a travel professional.”
“She learned the ropes quickly because she joined several organizations such as NACTA, CLIA and ASTA. Most importantly she is actively involved in these organizations and frequently attends their meetings and events. She is a well known icon in the industry and she will be in attendance at ASTA’s International Destination Expo in Lima, Peru this month as well as joining us at CLIA’s three sixty show in April.
“The range of connections to special interest groups, the diversity of specialties within our organization and connections our members have in their communities and circles is staggering and welcomed,” van Leeuwen notes.
All of which adds up to opportunity for NACTA. “Travel Professionals deciding to own their own business and those getting into the industry through second career choices choose to join NACTA because of the top-notch education and training programs. This is evident by the high attendance at our webinar training meetings where some classes attract over 200 participants. NACTA enjoys member growth because of our high quality training sessions and platform events for members to network and exchange sales and marketing tips.“
“Unlike other organizations that sell travel identification numbers for travel perks to attract membership, we experience growth based on our professional reputation, word of mouth recommendations, top-notch training programs and our supplier connections,” van Leeuwen said. NACTA has strong relations not only with ASTA and CLIA, but also with the Travel Institute, the NTA and TAMS.
Van Leeuwen began her travel career in 1988 as a group sales agent with Holland America Line and joined Virtuoso, Inc. as Director of Supplier Relations. A year later, she was promoted to Vice President, Member Sales and Service, where she was responsible for the overall operation of Virtuoso’s business development, sales talent, member operations and member customer service. In 1998 and 1999, she was named Travel Agent Magazine’s Rising Star and in 1995, she was Holland America’s Top Gun for exceptional sales performance.
In the year ahead van Leeuwen sees the opportunity to launch new programs that meet member needs. She notes that NACTA just announced its first ever-International conference to China, September 10-17th 2012. In addition to the first International Conference - hosted by J Yang Tours - along with the Shanghai Tourism Administration and the Hangzhou Trouism Bureau - NACTA will continue to offer members its “close to home” National Convention.
“Our National Convention is our most popular event with the NACTA membership because this is their opportunity to network face-to- face with one another through meetings, tradeshows and supplier workshops. Another popular event we introduced in 2011 and will continue in 2012 is our Tech Fest. This event was created based on member demand and desire to improve technology skills.”
|NACTA Chapter Directors aboard Oasis of the Seas. Front Row: Ann van Leeuwen (center Blue) Cecily Macdonald, Rose Greene Second Row: David Thrower, Dan Smith, Frank Greene Third Row: Tim Larison, Donnie Titus, Penney Rudicil Fourth Row (Right): Richard Schwartz, Doris Lafever Fifth Row: Alene Davies, Frank Conrad, Janine Battaglia Back: Remey Bourne NOT PICTURED: Jesse Mackey, Judy Duke|
Van Leeuwen views travel professionals and NACTA as vital to the travel industry. “They are well networked in local businesses and in their communities. They are members of multiple industry affiliations including ASTA (NACTA's parent company), CLIA, and consortiums through their host agencies. They have the ability to attract significant group business and luxury clientele. In a recent meeting I had with Steve Tucker, Vice President of Silverseas, he told me it is through NACTA that he finds some of his best pockets of luxury travel business because our members are well-connected in their communities. “
“NACTA members are important to consumers because they are extremely customer service oriented. They often meet with their clients in the comfort of their (clients’) homes to discuss travel plans as this is often more convenient for their clients. NACTA members are also known to meet with their clients at posh country clubs and in fine restaurants. NACTA travel professionals know how to dress for success both in professional attire and in positive attitude. While NACTA does have a consumer lead program through the website, many of our travel professionals grow their business by client referrals. Consumers looking to book with a NACTA member can find our travel professionals by entering our website and selecting from over 400 of our consultant profiles.”
“Celebrity Cruises' Jeff Clarke said it best. ‘Ann I can’t afford not to do business with NACTA. This is one sales channel that we need to key our eye on and do business with as it continues to grow.’ For suppliers some of the best, sizeable group business can be found by working with independent consultants in their communities. For the best 'sales calls' our supplier partners reach our members through webinar meetings where attendance and participation levels are high.“
van Leeuwen also says NACTA represents a network of Host Agencies where nearly 75 percent of the membership is affiliated with a host agency. “There are several reasons a Travel Professional may decide to join a host agency. For some it’s because they can find additional services such as technology and connectivity, rewarding commission levels and supplier promotional offers. “
“In a recent meeting I had with one of our host agencies I was very impressed to learn their main focus was to target talent outside of the travel industry and then offer training programs and group promotional offers (even via their own proprietary phone app for ease of booking anywhere). NACTA’s Host Agencies are important because they attract new talent to the industry and help new business owners by taking the worry out of setting up their own agency.“
How will travel professionals / independent contractors evolve in the future? Van Leeuwen is upbeat on the future. “IC’s will evolve and will no longer be called 'ICs'. Many Travel Professionals and business people work virtually all the time. There is no need to refer to them as 'Independents'- Independent of what? A traditional storefront agency? You may recall we’ve evolved from using the term 'outside sales agent' (as opposed to 'inside sales agent') and now we are at the turning point of referring to IC’s as simply Travel Professionals or Travel Consultants.“
“The value of a true Travel Professional will be measured by their clients who are looking for travel advice, service, knowledge and expertise, not where they make their phone calls from and set up their lap tops,” van Leeuwen says.
Despite this value to consumers, travel professionals need more attention from industry suppliers. “Collectively, virtual Travel Professionals are an important sales channel to the suppliers. Suppliers must start tracking their sales down to the consultant level in order to determine where the source of their business is originating and from there they can appropriately reward and recognize the right person selling their product. “
“The number of virtual Travel Professionals will continue to grow as the traditional store front agencies are acquired or close. Another evolution that we are seeing (albeit slowly) is how supplier Business Development Managers (BDMs) are figuring out how to work with virtual Travel Professionals. BDMs are accustomed to only make sales calls on traditional storefront agencies as they often don’t get sales credit for working with virtual Travel professionals or ICs. Another reason is BDMs don’t know how to find them because most all suppliers don’t have their contact information; so that is why doing business with NACTA is so important because we connect them to the supplier through our marketing, Chapter Directors’ meetings, and annual convention and through webinar training.“
What makes a successful travel professional? “A successful Travel Professional knows their clients’ interests, special occasions and upcoming celebrations and because they do they are able to plan their dream vacation or travel experience. Listen, Learn, Assess, Research, Advise, Plan, Book and Follow up post trip is the formula for a successful Travel Professional.
“NACTA has a strong, growing program and we offer our members real value. This includes a host of advantages:
Exclusive One Sheet program which is a profile resume builder
High quality magazine Agent Life issued six times a year
Competitive membership fee of $145 with an annual renewal rate at $95
Access to a portfolio of (and connection with) luxury and premium suppliers
Seminars at Sea with our exclusive PLUS program- which include in port/destination training and pre or post hotel inspections.
Multiple Destinational/Educational trips which are held in US cities for easy accessibility
Access to 42 Chapter Directors who Mentor the membership on a regional basis
Diverse and professional training program
Access to our Affiliates who provide discounted services to run their business.
An organization of Career Travel Professionals eager to network and sell travel
One source of encouragement to van Leeuwen and NACTA members is the support offered by suppliers. Two examples from Starwood and Alaska Dream cruises: "At Starwood Hotels & Resorts we are actively committed to the travel professional and encourage on-going learning and development," said Chris Austin, vice president, global retail leisure and luxury sales. "We appreciate that NACTA too considers education to be a focus of their association and are excited to be entering into our 3rd year of partnership. A significant number of NACTA members have embraced the opportunity to graduate from Starwoodpro’s ProLearning modules and to continue their education by taking immersive destination training opportunities. NACTA members are learning to sell destination and hotel experiences and they all have a huge opportunity to increase their profit potential & earn greater loyalty with their customers, and demonstrate support for preferred suppliers."
Mike Wien, vice president, marketing and sales, Alaskan Dream Cruises, commented: “Alaska Dream Cruises sought out a relationship with NACTA because we know the members can sell our small ship cruises. They have the clientele interested in our unique southeast Alaska itineraries.”
Looking ahead, van Leeuwen predicts a growing importance for technology. “Being connected and having quick access to current offers and promotions is helpful in the travel planning process. Technology allows our membership to keep current on travel trends, up and coming destinations and attractions and stay informed and networked with one another on industry news and events. “
The strengths of travel professionals are substantial, van Leeuwen believes. “The strengths include flexibility with client meetings, ability to meet their clients in their home and in professional environments, true entrepreneurship and a business owners driven motivation. They have strong community connections that lead to group business. Since many of them are in their second careers they bring a unique approach to the business and draw on their former experience and contact base.”
“Weakness of this sector of the distribution system lies in the fact that ICs are often overlooked by suppliers for their business potential especially at the BDM level due to lack of contact and a database,” van Leeuwen says.
“Also too many supplier Sales Departments haven’t figured out a compensation plan for BDMs who mine business from ICs in their region. Many supplier reservation systems are unable to track sales to the consultant level and therefore are missing out on this business opportunity.”
“From my perspective the NACTA member is responsible, professional, highly productive and capable of moving market share. The business model is different from that of a traditional agent, but one that can deliver unique value to hosts, suppliers and consumers.”