Turbulent Times Spell Change

Rapid evolution in travel industry reflected in education

By: R. Scott Macintosh

When the Center for Travel Marketing at Los Medanos College recently held a seminar on how to succeed in today’s travel industry, center director Kiran Kamath decided it should start with a funeral in remembrance of the way things used to be.

So students and faculty dressed in black, carried candles into a dark room and spent a half-hour mourning the death of the old industry. Then the lights came on and the celebration began.

“There is not a sad day in our program,” said Kamath. “It bothers me when industry organizations cry about the end of commissions and sue the airlines. There should be no crying over spilt milk.”

The changes that have swept through the industry with the end of airline commissions and the advent of Internet retail are changing the ways schools like the Pittsburg, Calif.-based Los Medanos College educate travel agents.

Enrollment in schools that train travel agents has been down since Sept. 11, due to fewer agents who have remained in business and the financial restraints that have prevented agents from getting more training.

Nevertheless, new curricula have been designed and new textbooks written to keep pace with latest trends. Those training materials aim to generate new revenue, as well offer a more positive outlook on the travel agent industry.

Even some of the nation’s top schools of travel and tourism have had to adapt. The University of Hawaii Travel Industry Management School’s class on travel agency management has been changed to examine the impact that technology and the Internet are having on the buying and selling of travel.

“Before, it was more of a travel-agency management class,” said Pauline Sheldon, interim dean of the school. “Now it is more like distribution travel management.”

The Hospitality and Tourism Education Department at Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu provides hands-on training on major travel reservation systems like Sabre, Worldspan and Amadeus, as well as the Internet.

“Computer technology is something we need to keep enforcing,” said Ron Umehira, chair of the department. “At the same time, we try to teach our students to be well rounded. We teach them to do more than just book tickets.”

But the need for new skills is perhaps even more pronounced in certification programs and seminars specifically geared toward travel agents.

The Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA) now updates the curricula of its cornerstone travel agent programs, the CTA (Certified Travel Agent) and CTC (Certified Travel Consultant), every six months.

ICTA previously had been making revisions every two years, but the pace of change in the industry required quicker revisions to keep material relevant. Its program now includes classes on credit card fraud prevention and selling travel insurance.

The education and training changes reflect salary statistics that show travel agents, in recent years, have had to know more in order to make more money.

Though the median salary for travel agents was reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be $25,150 in 2000, a survey by ICTA found that agents with a CTC certificate earned an average of $8,000 more a year.

The ICTA survey also found that agents who specialize in a certain area of travel could make about 11 percent more than agents without a specialty.

And trade industry organizations like ICTA, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) have adapted educational offerings to include more specialization programs.

“Agents are being told that they need to specialize, that they need more education,” said Connie Walsh, a director of sales with ICTA. “We are seeing a large percentage of agents are embracing this because they have to deal with a more sophisticated consumer and compete with the Internet.”

Over the last two years, ICTA has introduced 11 programs for agents who want to become specialists in specific destinations. It is currently working on six niche courses that include lifestyle segments such as selling to disabled travelers, selling to gay and lesbian travelers, and selling spas. ICTA will also offer a niche class on how to close Internet sales.

ASTA also offers home-study specialist courses that include niche travel, family travel, and North American rail travel.

Destination specialization has also become popular and ASTA is working out the details to hold two- to three-day conferences on a destination that will take place at the destination being discussed.

ICTA, which provides educational materials to 20 licensed schools, has also seen substantial demand in its destination specialist programs since Sept. 11, while enrollment in its CTA and CTC programs have decreased.

“One of the strongest trends we see is travel counselors trying to carve out a niche,” Walsh said.

Walsh attributes the enrollment decreases in the CTA and CTC programs to the financial hit the travel industry took after Sept. 11.

Currently, the biggest growth areas, according to Walsh, are in the number of new people entering the industry, who tend to be midcareer people who are either looking for a second job or are looking to switch careers altogether, and the growth of the home-agent segment.

Enrollment in ASTA’s Future Travel Professional program is split between older students looking for a new career and younger students who might not necessarily become travel agents but who have an interest in the hospitality industry, according to Ken Walsh, director of membership at ASTA.

At the Center for Travel Marketing at Los Medanos College, an ICTA-licensed school, enrollment has dropped by half since Sept. 11.

Kamath attributes some of that drop to the sour perception in the industry since the end of airline commissions.

“People need to work smarter not harder,” Kamath said.