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Navigating the world of professional certification and training options, alongside other dispatches from the new global workplace.

Certified Travel Agents

Friday 15 November 2013

Some time ago, I came across a New York Times article about how travel agents are often underappreciated in the age of Expedia and how we should all consider using them to help us plan our travels, or at least to have someone to call when something goes wrong.  The advice often goes that agents have access to special fares that don't show up on the big websites that take their airfare data directly from the "global distribution systems" - fares that a particular airline might want to target to customers from a particular ethnic neighborhood, for example, or STA's student fares.  Taking that advice, I actually drove fifty miles to try to use a travel agent's services on a recent trip, only to find that the prices that they were quoting me were far higher than what I could find on my own with ITA Matrix, and even when they managed to replicate the lowest fare I found, they wanted a $25 service charge to book it.  I asked them what service I got for that $25, and basically the answer was "well, we must charge for our time" - not the "we'll be on call 24/7 and whenever you need advice you can call us" I was expecting after reading what some of the occupation's staunchest defenders have been writing in newspapers and online lately... Maybe I just got unlucky - I will admit that I don't live in the most travel-savvy part of the US - but the conception of an occupation in a technology (and air carrier commission structure) induced death spiral was only confirmed on the airport shuttle when I reached my destination, where the guy sitting next to me told me that he has a travel agent license in Turkey (apparently it's a licensed occupation there) but, in his words, "there's no money in that business anymore."

But enough about the occupation's struggles.  Say the above anecdotes don't deter you.  You're fine with a modest wage for a comfortable office job where you get to hack the ever-interesting system of airfares the world's major carriers have set up.  Or you want to find a niche - say, upmarket cruises or adventure tour packages, as some agents have and do seem to be surviving, if not thriving.  What occupational certifications might you find?  Onestop Certification Finder offers numerous choices, including organizations with such interesting names as the Global Business Travel Association and the International Air Transport Association (thought this was part of the UN, actually!).  Of course, this is an industry where it's hard to get one's foot in the door, given the general downsizing that has resulted from technological change, and similarly it's hard to build a new client base if you want to go it alone.  Certification, thus, strikes me more as a tactic for existing agents to better make the case for their value to existing clients, rather than a tool for newbies to enter the occupation.  Nonetheless, here are some of the major options:

  • The Travel Institute: This one seems to be more of a vocational institute than a professional association, but it nonetheless offers a range of certificates for agents trying to demonstrate competence in a niche.  Programs include the Certified Destination Specialist, Certified Travel Counselor, and Certified Travel Industry Executive (ooh, fancy sounding!).  These do have modest work experience requirements, and require annual re-certification.  I really have no idea how well regarded the Institute is in the industry, and would be curious to read others' comments on this one (as with all the certificates I mention!)
  • Global Business Travel Association: This organization seems to be trying to create a niche within the general travel agent occupation with their "Global Travel Professional" certificate.  I have to say that their website looks pretty slick (often, though not always, a sign of a certification program's credibility and seriousness) and they do other things that occupational associations are supposed to do, such as legislative advocacy.  They test with ETS/Prometric, which, as usual, means their certificate is kind of pricey - though it also means that there are many options for taking the exam.  At first glance, this looks like a very credible credential.
  • International Air Transport Association Travel and Tourism Professional Certificate: One of four certificates issued by the IATA, I would say that this one probably has the most international currency and best opens the door to transnational career mobility, given the IATA's central role in the international travel industry.  However, you have to keep in mind that this one may be more airline-focused, and airline tickets are not where the big commissions are in the travel industry anymore. Interestingly, this one does not have a testing requirement at all - you just need to provide evidence of two years of work experience plus a bachelor's degree (or more work experience and an undergrad degree, or if new to the industry, completion of one of IATA's online training courses).   The fee structure strikes me as kind of steep considering that they do not actually develop or administer an exam.  Re-certification is required every two years and requires you to earn points through a variety of occupational citizenship activities, the sum total of which actually strike me as more intensive than the process of getting the initial certification.  Again, I'd love to read feedback from anyone who has actually gone through the process with this one!
Travel agents are at the forefront of many of the changes to sales and information-related occupations that technological change is bringing, and it's interesting to see their credentialing systems adapt.  I'll try to update this page as I learn more about the occupation.  To all who are thinking about pursuing a travel agent certification, good luck and bon voyage!

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