Skills acquired through new training programs and online courses are helping agents during tough times
Travel agents—both traditional and home-based—are more in need of marketing and selling skills, as well as in-depth product knowledge, than ever before. With fewer customers out there, it is critical that agents distinguish themselves through marketing and travel expertise, and apply ace sales techniques to close bookings. To gain such skills, agents are turning to their consortia, host or franchise’s parent company for help.
And these organizations are responding with new training programs and educational courses that address their members’ needs.
It is increasingly difficult for agents to get out of the office for in-person training says Gina Weyer, CTC, regional vice president, Signature Travel Group. So, Signature has taken its training program to the agents’ desktops, with Signature University, offering agencies flexibility in content as well as on how training is conducted.
This has enabled the owners to offer their out-of-office staff education at home while continuing with in-house instruction for their office staff. Owners can also opt for the “Train the trainer” courses, with a varied curriculum, to customize learning programs for individual agents.
Signature University has three content groupings. The Business Skills Courseware Collection is a series of 26 courses designed to train agents on sales and marketing skills.
Weyer says this year’s courses have been chosen by a training task force composed of Signature agency owners and are influenced by the state of the economy; all courses touch on sales and customer service.
A second grouping of courses combines Books24x7, an online book resource, and the Leadership Development Channel, offering live and on-demand video learning programs. Both are open to owners only.
The final piece of Signature University, still under construction, is Signature Custom Courses. These will run the gamut from basic introductions of individual Signature tools and services to more detailed instruction on how to use administrative and marketing tools to increase business.
Since August 1, Signature agencies have had access to the Business Skills collection, and the Books24x7 and Leadership Development Channel. At the company’s owners’ conference in September, Signature corporate staff will begin consulting with owners and managers to develop training plans, for both the office and for individual agents.
CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. is taking its training to a whole new level, says Steven Hattem, vice president, marketing. The franchise and host company for home-based agents is revamping its regional training program, moving away from product training and focusing on personality-driven sales techniques.
Based on Myers-Briggs’ DISC personality profiles, the new regional meetings enable agents to understand their own personality types to better recognize the personality types of their customers. That way, agents can sell services effectively.
When compared with a control group of agents who didn’t attend a regional meeting, sales by agents who attended the first meeting in December 2008 were up nearly 50 percent, and sales by those who attended the second regional, in May this year, were up 31 percent.
That’s not all. At the end of last year, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. launched a series of intense five-week Boot Camp training programs. Each week of the course focused on a different segment of the industry or a different aspect of sales and marketing. Interested agents had to commit completely to the program. Arriving late to an online class or not completing homework got an agent kicked out immediately.
But agents who complete the program are finding immense success, says Hattem. Three groups of agents have completed Boot Camp classes since December 2008. When compared with agents who have not participated in a Boot Camp, sales by these agents are up by more than 30 percent.
The company has also ramped up its niche training, selecting small groups of agents to participate in specialist programs.
According to Jack Mannix, president and CEO of Ensemble Travel Group, ensuring that the group’s member agencies are experts in Ensemble products and services is the foremost priority. Therefore, the company is starting the Ensemble Specialist Certification this year.
The certification program is targeted at the frontline seller and immerses participants in every aspect of travel product Ensemble offers its members. By getting certified, agents will be more effective in selling the whole travel package, says Mannix, because they will know exactly what to offer their clients. Right now, he adds, agents are utilizing all the travel pieces to which they have access.
Also brand new is a formalized, online training program designed to help agents take advantage of the group’s agency websites initiative, launched in 2008. The program, which Mannix likens to a university, is tiered and agents can choose how in-depth they want their training to be. As agents progress, the classes get smaller, more detailed and more interactive.
Ensemble has also begun testing a new regional grassroots networking project, with the purpose of building stronger relationships between agents in the same geographical area by focusing on regionalized needs and information.
Expanding In-Office Training
To meet its members’ training needs, Vacation.com has expanded its educational offerings, including ramping up in-office visits. According to the group’s Training & Member Development team, Vacation.com has already exceeded the total number of members trained in 2008 by 15 percent.
In-office visits began in 2007 but took off only in 2008 and have now been expanded further, increasing the number of trainers from three to six so that more territory can be covered. Training specialist Melissa Fox tells Travel Agent that in-office instruction is more convenient than webinars for agencies, and also more successful. In-office training focuses on EZguider, Engagement and other core Vacation.com programs.
Vacation.com also expanded the number of Quick Tips reference guides it offers to members. About 40 guides are available and cover all the group’s core programs, as well as back-office software and more.
Two new Quick Tips guides teach agents how to use Twitter and Facebook as free marketing avenues. Fox says there has been a growing demand for social networking training. In July alone, 400 agents downloaded the Facebook reference guide and 300 downloaded the Twitter guide.
Vacation.com also offered social networking education programs at its recent conference and during a June webinar. More such webinars are planned, but dates have not yet been determined.
Partnering with Suppliers
In 2008, Virtuoso launched its comprehensive learning system, the Virtuoso Trust, investing approximately $8,000 per agency to provide what Mindy Exum, managing director, training, calls “unmatched professional development and training opportunities.”
Used as an umbrella term, the Virtuoso Trust comprises course content—200 free courses covering a range of educational topics—as well as the online campus through which content is delivered.
Since the launch of Virtuoso Trust, the organization has launched several more training initiatives to help advisors gain a competitive advantage. Among them are a series of destination development programs, created in conjunction with tourism board partners.
The programs combine destination certification with learning how to sell using Virtuoso assets. Each curriculum is composed of a structured set of requirements, including coursework, sales coaching, sales targets and more. The destinations offered are Spain, Mexico and Australia. There is also a specialist program for VAST, which is the group’s specialty and soft adventure program.
Also working together with supplier partners, Virtuoso is developing a series of sales campaigns for 2010. They will be designed to help advisors reach sales goals in order to receive overrides and will include sales, marketing and training elements.
On the training end, Virtuoso will develop specialized supplier training in order to prepare advisors to take advantage of whichever campaigns they choose to participate in.
As part of the training, Virtuoso is introducing Sales Briefs, which are one-hour sessions with a supplier executive discussing the state of the market and how advisors can use the opportunities presented by the campaign to overcome any difficulties the market is facing. Also new will be monthly Sales Forums, which provide an opportunity for campaign networking and sharing of best practices.
Taking on Consulting
Traditionally, TravelSavers’ network of home-based agencies are trained on products, tools and services by their business development managers (BDMs), either in person or over the phone. While the company will continue this training, BDMs now have consulting added to their job description, says Kathryn Mazza-Burney, executive vice president of sales and services. Every call a BDM makes to a member agency now includes time for consultations on ways agents can find new customers.
The company is also formalizing some of its training via town-hall meetings to be held this fall. During these sessions, the participating agents will receive hands-on training on programs and products that TravelSavers offers its agents.