Targeting Your Niche: Destination Specialists

National tourism organizations around the world are looking for ways to connect with agents

By: Lisa Jennings

Travel agent Mary Backous has never had much of a budget to promote her Harley-Davidson tours through Australia.

But this summer, Backous will have $2,000 for advertising and printing slick fliers, thanks in part to a new program by the Australian Tourist Commission for Aussie Specialists.

Backous was one of 20 award-winning specialists selected for the commission’s “Opal Consortium,” agents invited to share in about $40,000 in cooperative marketing funds.

It’s an innovative benefit the commission hopes to expand. And it’s one example of how tourism officials are attempting to develop relationships with agents that go beyond the traditions of training and referrals.

The efforts are helping continue the growth of the long-established niche of agent specialization in destinations.

While there are no specific numbers on how many agents have specialized in destinations, dozens of locations offer such programs and thousands of agents have participated.

For the Institute of Certified Travel Agents, destination specialist courses are “more popular than ever,” said Pat Gagnon, its director of program development. “Destination training has always been a constant for us.”

And the training is becoming increasingly more accessible as more specialist courses are offered online.

For example: Agents can complete their training online for Britain’s Brit Agent, New Zealand’s Kiwi Specialist, South Africa’s Fundi and Ireland’s Shamrock Club.

On deck for online training is Tahiti Tourisme, the Australian commission (which already has some components online) and even Scotland’s SCOTS Master program, long considered one of the most demanding training programs for destination specialists.

ICTA, which offers 11 destination courses, is also moving toward putting its courses online, Gagnon said. And the program is adding courses on new destinations. New this year are classes on St. Lucia, Spain and Mexico.

Destination Ventures, based in Bend, Ore., is developing an interactive online “campus” for destination courses, said Greg Custer, owner and vice president. A few online courses are now available at

Destination Ventures has long offered training for Puerto Rico and the Mexico. But the company’s long-time contract with the Mexican Tourism Board to offer specialist courses is being renegotiated.

The travel industry, said Custer, has not kept up with innovations in long-distance learning.

“It requires more than just posting text and pictures on a Web page,” he said. “Simply providing training courses and mailing a diploma isn’t going to convey the type of commitment and brand loyalty agents will need to compete in the future.”

Indeed, with the number of destination specialists growing, some tourism officials are looking for new ways to connect with their top-producing agents.

Earlier this summer, for example, Tourism Ireland organized a series of sales calls, presentations and “Irish evening” events for top-producing agents.

“We want to keep our agents on track with travel trends,” said Catherine Gale, Tourism Ireland’s national marketing manager. “In the current climate, they can have quite an influence.”

Since training has been available online, the Shamrock Club has jumped in membership from about 1,000 two years ago to the current 7,500.

But some agents say they fear such growth is watering specialist programs down.

“It’s getting too easy,” said Sharon Oberritter, a home-based independent agent in Scottsdale, Ariz. “The harder the course is, the better I understand the product.

“If I’m a specialist, I don’t want to be treated like Mary Jane down the road who hasn’t taken the time to learn the information.”

Oberritter also said the number of referrals she gets from tourism boards is dwindling as more agents become specialists.

Still, other agents say such referrals rarely amount to much.

Referrals are “not going to keep you in business,” said Maureen Jones, president of All Horizons Travel in Los Altos, Calif.

Jones is certified as a specialist in 29 countries, with a focus on Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as her native Scotland.

Jones charges clients a $100 consulting fee. But she travels extensively in the countries she sells and can often give clients firsthand knowledge.

“The first question a client will ask you is, ‘Have you been there?’ ” she said. “I think you sell what you’ve seen.”

Some tourism officials also say they are concerned about the growth in specialist programs.

Clare Packer, Brit Agent project manager, said there are about 765 specialists in the program, about half of whom have “graduated.” She is considering capping the program at 1,000.

The Brit Agent Web referral system is also being refined so consumers can do a search for travel agent specialists not by zip code but by area of specialty, such as a Brit Agent who knows about antiques, or golf in the U.K.

Luke Jones, the Australian commission’s manager of retail programs, said the Aussie Specialist program has shrunk considerably. Initially the program was free, and drew 3,000. Now it costs about $75 per year, and numbers have dropped to about 1,000.

The Australian commission has long offered Opal awards to specialists showing creativity. This year, Opal winners and finalists over the past three years were eligible to compete for marketing funds.

“We don’t want to get into a situation where we’re just feeding them leads,” said Jones. “We want to develop a relationship that goes beyond that.”

Still, of the 20 agents offered access to the marketing funds this year, only 12 chose to participate. Jones suspects the reason is tight advertising budgets many agents didn’t have the front money available.

Backous, who will promote her Australian Harley tours later this summer, contributed $250, a supplier gave another $250 and the commission, $1,500.

Calling it a “once in a lifetime deal,” Backous, who works for Carlson Wagonlit Travel Center in Tacoma, Wash., said, “I never thought we would get support like this. I am very thankful and grateful.”