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How to Become a Travel Agent

It’s a new travel industry – more independent, less competitive and accessible to newcomers. Job opportunities exist. That is, if you can find your niche and work hard from home.

Change is under way in the travel industry. Brick-and-mortar storefronts are becoming relics as independent consultants replace traditional travel agencies. You can thrive in this new home-based world. Knowledge, expertise and research are key. But ultimately, it’s about service – at both ends of the travel dollar.

eHow spoke with Dan Smith, the Pacific Northwest Chapter director of the National Association of Career Travel Agents, about selling travel packages, getting credentialed, finding customers and working from home.

Getting Started

Dan Smith

Maybe someone has a great circle of relationships and people are always coming to them and they say, “Why shouldn’t I get paid for doing all this research? I like doing it, but I could be making money.” A lot of people get into their 50s and say, “You know maybe I’ll just start this as a part-time thing.” Some are very successful at it. They can balance more than one life simultaneously. … If you have a family reunion and you have an affinity with travel, you will start talking to hotels, you will talk to airlines, resorts, maybe transportation systems.

The School Route

There are some travel schools out there. I don’t think that’s a good place to get training necessarily. That’s how a lot of people have started, but then they were able to go into a brick-and-mortar and file brochures, write tickets. There are few places to do that these days because so many brick-and-mortars are no longer available. “When I left the airline, I thought I knew travel. I knew nothing about travel,” Smith said. “I knew how to get people on and off airplanes. It’s a totally different world.”

Knowing What You Sell

It’s learning about a place and being effective in communicating about the place. … I have a wholesale business, which means a customer and/or another travel agent will call me and say, “What do you know about Costa Rica?” I have a guy I work with in Costa Rica. I send him a profile and budget. Here’s the time frames, what the clients are thinking of doing. He will come back with an itinerary. Then I go back to the client and say, “Here is what we can do.” … Part of the reason it works is because I am doing the boutique smaller properties, as opposed to the mega-properties. And when you are going to destinations, people aren’t looking for the brass and glass. They want to experience a place. So I’m on both sides of the street. I am a seller and I am also a resource to the other travel agents. Then I turn around and say to somebody else, “I need information on how to get a ground operator in Naples that’s not going to take advantage of people.” … That’s part of how we interact and support each other.

Getting it Right

Find the honest, reputable organizations that will support you. Because if you don’t put those pieces together and it falls apart you better be prepared to make it a positive. Until you’ve had to do that it’s overwhelming. I had a guy this last week where the hotel dates got messed up. That shouldn’t be his problem. Even though it cost me money to fix it, I still retained the guy as a client. That’s part of developing clientele. If it’s a new experience, even if it doesn’t result in a sale, it’s still a good learning experience.

The Value of Credentials

Travel professionals can earn a slew of credentials to enhance their reputation, such as certification from the Cruise Lines International Association, which is important if you want to specialize in cruise packages.

But there are also “card mills,” where you can plop down “$50, $100 or $500, and mysteriously you are a travel agent. It becomes like a Ponzi pyramid thing. These card mills open up and they give people cards that supposedly have value. But those people aren’t selling anything.

The most important credential is an ID card from the International Airlines Travel Agent Network. IATAN is universally known as the independent organization that says you’ve met particular criteria.

Finding Business

That’s the question every business is trying to answer. There’s no silver bullet, and everybody has their own style. “I do mailers, I do emails, I do trade shows, I do consumer shows,” Smith says. “It takes a lot of energy to garner people around. It’s about relationships and referrals.”

A Competitive Landscape

The philosophy among the majority is there’s enough business out there. In the brick-and-mortar days it was far more competitive. In today’s world we are all in the same place. Some of us have a different niche. Some years are better than others. The point being it’s a support system. How do we help everybody be successful? How do we help everybody improve their bottom line without losing the relationships? Any kind of healthy business is a relationship. “In travel, if you don’t approach it as a relationship, you have one-time sales and that’s it. It needs to be referrals, it needs to be repetitive,” Smith says. Those are the things that sustain you through the ebb and flow of the economy. If your mentality is only bottom-line, then all that stuff is a waste of time. You can’t be in travel today as an independent and expect it to be only about the dollars.

The Shift

In the ’90s there were 34,000 travel agents primarily in brick-and-mortars across the U.S. Now there are 14,000, and probably 80 percent are independent contractors. … And that’s part of the reason NACTA has become successful — because most of the vendors, the wholesalers, the cruise lines, they can’t find these people without brick and mortar. It becomes very isolating when you come out of an office environment.

Coexisting with Orbitz and Expedia

There’s a place for Orbitz and Expedia for the bottom-line-focused customer. But the cheapest price is not always the best price. If you’re going to London, you can get the cheapest price online for, say, $600, but you will make three stops and it will take one-and-a-half days to get there. “I’m talking about the value of your time,” Smith says.