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
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 dv.coursehost.com.
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
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
Earlier this summer, for example, Tourism Ireland organized a
series of sales calls, presentations and “Irish evening” events for
“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
But some agents say they fear such growth is watering specialist
“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
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
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
Jones charges clients a $100 consulting fee. But she travels
extensively in the countries she sells and can often give clients
“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
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
“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
Backous, who will promote her Australian Harley tours later this
summer, contributed $250, a supplier gave another $250 and the
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