Learn How to Learn

WITH THE MARKETPLACE FILLED WITH A CONTINUOUSLY INCREASING number of products and so many ever-evolving destinations, it is more important than ever to stay on top of the day-to-day changes in the industry.  In-person seminars

There is plenty of information out there to keep you current from many sources including suppliers,visitors bureaus, host agencies and independent training organizations. Often the challenge is how to select the programs that work best for you.

Jean Melcher, a home-based agent who belongs to the host agency Partners in Travel Luxury Division and owns Jean Melcher Travel, says she had the fortune of being groomed through years of traveling before she eventually got into the business about four years ago, so she was already familiar with the basics.

But for someone who's as busy as Melcher says she usually is, sometimes the in-house programs are the best bets.

"I'm too busy to go on the computer and search the web for training programs every time I have a question about something, every time I'm looking to learn about something," Melcher says. "My host agency's hotline pretty much helps you out whenever you want. I had a question on a Saturday morning once, and I got an answer shortly after I asked it."  courses you can take online on your own time are two options for increasing your product and destination knowledge

Log On to Learn

Since agents who are new to the field might not have a host agency to turn to for training, a good way for them to get some basic information is to log onto to a computer and search for online courses. Some of these courses are free, and many are appropriate for both beginning agents and veterans looking to stay updated on trends and developements.

Travel Agent University (TAU; www.tauniv.com), which launched in 1999, offers courses for agents to take on their own time. The free service, which is operated by Questex Media Group, the owner of this publication, offers more than 30 courses ranging from lessons on selling romance destinations to cruises.

The number of courses vary annually, depending on how many sponsors the program receives. Individual travel companies, destinations and cruise brands will choose to be sponsors of a course. If the sponsors don't renew or update their course by the end of the year, the course is removed from the site.

The courses, which all include a final exam, teach agents everything they need to learn about the particular subject. Computer course held by Carlson Wagonlit Travel on their booking tool

Although the word "exams," might understandably frighten some agents, the tests are necessary and serve a purpose. "The exams will end up benefiting you—you don't want to go out in the field unprepared. About 95 percent of all agents who have taken courses on Travel Agent University passed," says Ken Grant, project manager for TAU. He says the program comes in handy for agents who are simply too busy to look for information from a variety of sources.

"Agents need to have up-to-date information about the destinations they sell. It's not possible for them to visit every single destination, to see every single site. So we create courses that quickly give them the information they need to sell the destination to their clients.

"I think agents are going to take away different aspects, depending on their needs. Let's say a home-based agent is selling to a particular niche. If they specialize in wedding planning or romance travel, they will find content specifically for that," Grant says.

The course is available to take all day, week and year, Grant says.

Other online course options include two offered by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA)—a self-taught course for all agents, and a Model Agency Program, which is geared mainly toward newer agents who might need more basic help. Questex Media Group's Travel Agent University allows agents to learn at home at their own pace

Choose Your Course

Like those at Travel Agent University, ASTA's courses are geared for all agents and include various forms of travel and specific destinations. For example, the Jordan Specialist Course obviously highlights Jordan as a destination. Another option, the Mature Adult Travel course, teaches agents how to sell trips that are attractive to that particular demographic.

All courses can be taken either online or can be purchased on CD-ROM as a PDF file. Prices depend on what form of the test the agent purchases, but all courses range from $69 to $89. For the Model Agency program, all courses are $75.

There is no time limit on this type of course.

"Agents can take these courses on their own time, and take as long as they want to complete them," says Rebecca LeFevre, ASTA's meeting, programs and development manager. Baptism By Fire: Learning the Trade Through Experience and Networking

"A lot of people might feel comfortable taking self-taught classes, since everyone learns differently and at a different pace. This doesn't put much pressure on them, and gives them as much time as they need to understand the material," says LeFevre.

Of course, a major educational force in the industry is The Travel Institute (800-542-4282, www.thetravelinstitute.com, [email protected]).

This organization, known for its Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) and Certified Travel Associate (CTA) programs, also provides two tiers of specialist training and testing. The first, its destination-specialist (DS) designation for specific countries and regions, awards students who pass its tests with the designation and 10 continuing education units (CEUs). Agents can purchase study materials from the institute's online bookstore. They also can purchase and take paper or online tests. Workshops are beneficial, like this Carlson Wagonlit one on managing business travel accounts

The institute's second tier, certified destination specialist (CDS), is available for specific countries, explains Patricia Gagnon director of program development. Agents must already have earned institute certification for and have visited the destination. They then prepare a visit report that is evaluated on a pass/fail basis at a cost of $25.

Participants receive a certificate for each program successfully completed. Institute members who earn DS or CDS designations are listed on the web site, so consumers can easily determine that an agent is qualified.

This overview of training options should help you decide which learning method and program is right for you. Take advtantage of them and watch your expertise, sales and client base grow.

—Camie Foster contributed to this report