Specializing is a great way to find and retain clients, and ultimately boost sales. From the competitive advantage that comes from separating yourself from the pack to the satisfaction of fulfilling an individual passion for a destination or a niche like adventure or cruising, there are plenty of reasons to take the plunge and make the investment of time and (sometimes) money it requires to do so.
The key to specializing, says Louise Gardner, senior director, Carlson Wagonlit Travel Canada, is to increase your knowledge base. “Travellers value people and knowledge,” she says. “Knowledge is key. You want to learn about things that you never thought existed because that’s what’s going to bring value to your customers.”
Of course, one of the most direct – and easiest – ways of successfully narrowing one’s focus is to take a “specialist program.” All manner of organizations – from attractions to tour operators, hotel and resort companies, cruise lines, insurance companies and tourist boards, as well as agency chains and independent “institutes,” offer courses that ultimately lead to increased knowledge, greater compensation, personal perks, and those cherished credentials. And all of that is good for business.
WHAT ARE THEY?
Specialist programs come in all shapes and sizes, but they are generally free and available online (some even tailored for tablets and mobile phones). Travel advisors can usually do the course at their own pace, although often there are set time frames to start and finish the curriculum. Sometimes live training events – or, in the cruise industry, ship inspections – help fast-track course completion.
Programs may also have multiple tiers with increased levels of both education and benefits. Tourism New Zealand, for example, has gold, silver and bronze levels.
Tourism Australia has two tiers: general Aussie Specialist plus the enhanced Premier Aussie Specialist, the latter designed “for those Aussie Specialists with an established record of selling Australia and who wish to be more actively involved in marketing and promoting Australia.’” Criteria to become a “premier” is quite stringent, including meeting yearly sales targets. However, successful agents (there are only 14 in Canada) earn enhanced benefits, such as a profile on the tourist board’s consumer web site and invitations to annual tourism exchanges in both Los Angeles and Australia.
On the other hand, Switzerland Tourism’s basic course can be completed in as little as three hours, yet it fully covers a top 10 list of experiences, such as lifestyle, scenic trains, outdoors, winter, food, and tours.
Upon completion of a course, the successful agent is afforded “specialist” status with a corresponding certificate, as well as a host of varying benefits that go along with it.
WHY BECOME A SPECIALIST?
- KNOWLEDGE: “Knowledge is power,” says Chris May, managing director of U.K.-based Equator Learning, which powers Travel Uni, a specialist program aggregator that operates in Canada. “With the plethora of online information the client has become rapidly confused. Personal advice and interaction is the key differentiator in achieving consumer confidence in your services. The more you know, the more you will sell. It really is that simple.”
- CONFIDENCE: “The more familiar travel professionals are with a destination and its experiences, the more ease and efficiency they have to convert potential travellers,” says Karyl Leigh Barnes of Visit California in Canada, adding, “The California STAR program is designed to instill the confidence needed to sell California’s diverse product offerings, even if these travel professionals have little former knowledge about (the State).”
Tourism New Zealand trade director René de Monchy notes that, in addition to education, the 100% Pure New Zealand Specialist Program give agents “access to a range of benefits to help grow your New Zealand business” – tools like online training modules, webinars, and videos on the South Pacific nation.
- PROFESSIONAL VALIDATION: “Qualified agents attract the attention not only of suppliers but more importantly consumers,” says Travel Uni’s May. “A good reputation is a hard-won skill.” Aida Vincelli, executive vice-president of Tully Luxury Travel, adds, “(Specialist status) makes you the expert like no other. People will feel that they will miss out on something it’s not arranged by specifically you, the true specialist!”
- IMPROVED SALES SKILLS: “(We) spend an incredible amount of time on e-learning,” says Collette Canada President Doug Patterson. “We build accreditations into it and it really allows you to have an understanding of the product itself, how to evolve with the product, and, in most cases, how to help close that sale. ”Meanwhile, some programs like Allianz Global Assistance, for example, go beyond basic product knowledge to teach general sales skills, such as best practices for social media and using the latest technology.
- CREDENTIALS: In addition to becoming the likes of an Aussie Specialist, Melia Pro, or California STAR, agents might also earn credits towards other industry certification credentials, such as ACTA, CLIA, or U.S.- based The Travel Institute, though as the latter points out: “It isn’t just letters after your name; they are a statement about who you are and the commitment you have made to your career. Customers like dealing with a recognized professional.”
- REPUTATION: Anyone who has ever attended a Sandals road show knows that Certified Sandals Specialists feel the love from company execs. Indeed, specialists are the obvious go-to agents for tourist boards or suppliers, and some, like Tourism Australia, will even go so far as to provide referrals from consumers. “There have been some recent large bookings generated by the leads from our website (a single reservation worth over $100,000, for example),” says Paul Larcher of Tourism Australia in Canada, who adds, “Premier Aussie Specialists are recognized for their expertise and high level of Australia sales by all North American wholesale distribution partners, inbound tour operators and Australian sellers.”
“The more engaged that you are with the tourism board, the greater the benefits to you and your business,” adds New Zealand’s de Monchy.
- PROFITABILITY: “I think a lot of agents realize that in this day and age, it’s tough to make a great living off of booking seven and 14-night packages to the Caribbean and Mexico, so really successful agents are looking to find a niche that they are interested in and are becoming specialized in that area,” Larcher says. “Their expertise is invaluable and it’s not easy to find on the web. These agents reap the benefits – mostly by word of mouth from happy customers.”
- PERKS: From booking bonuses to gift certificates, discounted travel and FAM trips, personal perks are plenty. Similarly, business benefits can range from marketing support and client referrals to incentives and deals from industry partners. (See sidebar). “The more you book and report your bookings to that supplier, the more incentives you will get,” advises Laurie Keith of Romantic Planet Vacations.
- FUN: Switzerland Tourism promises “studying with a smile,” with the tourist board’s trade manager Pascal Prinz stating, “Our program is very interactive, educational and fun.” California, meanwhile, has a newly revamped course “rich in content and video, vivid imagery and amazing content layout, with fun, interactive question and knowledge tests throughout to ensure you remember what you learnt along the way.” Accoding to Nexion Canada President Mike Foster, “There is a lot of training out there. People are learning to take that training to a whole other level.”
FOCUS YOUR SPECIALTY
Some destinations are pretty big places and some sub-industries are quite varied as well. Being a specialist in river cruising within the bigger field of cruising, for example, can take your skill and knowledge level to even greater heights.
Even within a destination, there are chances to specialize. For instance, with the Switzerland Travel Academy, travel agents have the opportunity to focus on niche markets such as families, luxury and outdoor activities.
“My personal experience of being a destination specialist has proven to be very beneficial to my career,” says Darlene St. Louis, air department and UK product manager at Ontario-based Senior Discovery Tours. “I have grown my area of expertise into several tours that take in specific events, some focus on regions, and really indulge in that area’s history and traditions. These have (led to) repeat clientele based on what they have heard.”
TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
Savvy agents might combine two programs into one. Earlier this year, Goway, for example, partnered with Tourism Australia, whereby its own Goway Aussie Specialists who also completed Tourism Australia’s specialist program qualified for double the prizes, including a $2,000 gift certificate towards a trip Down Under, along with other prizes ponied up by not one, but two partners.
Of course, there’s a lot to keep track of, with so many courses available. To aid in efficiencies, the ACTA Campus platform offers a “catalogue” of close to three-dozen travel learning courses, including the Air Canada Global Sales University. Specialist programs range from the College of Disney Knowledge to the Holland America Line Academy.
On Travel Uni, agents will similarly find “an easy one-stop shop” of specialist programs, like Alaska, Florida and Jumeirah Hotels. “The more courses that an agent completes, the more their status increases,” May says. “It really is win-win for you personally and for your business.”
Once you’ve distinguished yourself, don’t be afraid to share it. Hang the certificate on your office wall and include your credentials, supplied logos, etc. in your e-mail signatures, on LinkedIn and anywhere else you use your professional name.
Romantic Planet’s Laurie Keith personally holds close to 20 specialist program designations and suggests being engaged on social media pages for the products and destinations in which you specialize. She also recommends answering relevant consumer questions on review sites like TripAdvisor.
“Be sure that you are added to that suppliers’ lead generation program if they have one,” she adds.
Nexion’s Foster agrees. “Tell the world that you’re a specialist. You don’t want to just say, ‘I’m an expert in Paris,’ but maybe tell the reasons why you’re an expert. I think some of the best web traffic we’ve seen are people who have taken their profiles and made them a little bit more expansive – where I’ve been lately, what specialist programs I’ve taken.”
KEEPING UP WITH THE CREDENTIALS
Be aware, however, that achieving a designation isn’t the end of the road. Having “regular engagement” with a program may be required to maintain specialist status, including possibly passing new course modules or attending supplier-hosted events.
Indeed, most courses are updated every year or two, but include new information on a much more regular basis. Celebrity Cruises, for one, continually updates its Five Star Academy with news and new product offerings.
“The Celebrity Cruises brand is always evolving based on the desires of our guests,” says VP of sales North America, Keith Lane, “so it is very important that our travel partners stay informed.
See an extended version of this story in CT's August issue, in the back of Canadian Traveller.