Talking training

The future of the travel trade depends on investment in its people, so why is the issue of staff training so overlooked? ATN gathered training providers and agents together to discuss why training standards must be improved.
Talking training
Training providers from EmQuest, TRS Consulting and DTTAG met agents from Orient Travels, DNATA and Kanoo at the debate.
By Monika Canty
Wed 08 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

For far too long, the issue of training has not been viewed as a priority in the region’s travel trade. But with agents no longer able to rely on airline commissions to make a living, providing a top-notch service is vital to staying competitive; and investment in staff training has never been more important.

Some progress has been made in recent years –  thanks to initiatives from the Dubai Travel And Tour Agents Group (DTTAG) – which has put training at the forefront of its agenda, and in partnership with EmQuest and TRS Consulting has rolled out free-of-charge training courses to all its members.

ATN gathered representatives from DTTAG, EmQuest, and TRS Consulting to talk training with agents from Dnata Travel, Orient Travel and Kanoo –  at the VIP suite in the Dusit Thani Dubai – and found there’s still  a long way to go before industry standards are brought up to scratch.

ATN: In general how would you rate the level of investment in staff training in this region?

Mohsin: The training being done emphasises more on the technical side of things. But customer care and the importance of the customer – those are core issue, and that sort of training is not being provided, which is very, very important if you want to improve the standard of travel services here. That level has to be improved.

The problem at present is that there are so many smaller travel agencies in the market and if you look at the standard of the travel consultant who is sitting behind that desk – they are poor on knowledge. Just by issuing a ticket and making a reservation – you cannot call yourself a travel consultant. When you call yourself a consultant, it means you should have complete and thorough knowledge so that you can advise a customer. But how many travel consultants here possess that knowledge?

Tricia: Anyone can learn how to make a booking and do a ticket, what sets you apart from your competitors is that extra customer service, that skill. And I think in this industry its something we lag behind in.

If you are a doctor, a teacher, a pilot etc you have to get recurrent training all the time. It cannot be ‘one time you’re in and that’s it’– it’s about constantly being re-trained, you have to make sure you take tests. Coming from the US we also had to be consistently trained. We had to do so many programmes and lessons every quarter.

It’s to make sure you know what the latest service is, what the latest markets are doing. You know how to provide that extra step. That in general is one thing that could be more substantial here.

Sundar: If you look at all travel companies in this region, there is a need for that whole mass to come to a higher level. How can you say that we charge professional service fees when the industry itself is not recognised as a professional industry? I mean, I’m not quite sure whether our industry is actually at a par with other service-related companies.

I’m not talking about any one agency here, but the industry collectively. For someone working in a travel outlet in an organisation who would have the need to train, as an industry we are just not offering that. The entire industry has to be a part of the process of change.

Varghese: Are we doing enough training for our travel industry associates? Definitely not. Look at the hotel industry and banking industry, with the training they are conducting – it’s definitely not happening.

ATN: Why is staff training not seen as a priority in the travel sector, as it is in other industries?

Leo: It’s about the margins. We’ve got too many travel agencies for the market to support, and since the commissions disappeared they don’t know how to maintain income. You still can’t get agencies to move away from the old idea of “I’ll do it for less”. It runs through the trade.

Varghese: Many travel companies are not conducting training, because remuneration in the travel sector as we all know is very, very small and training is an expensive affair. At many of the travel agencies your net retention may be less than one%, so I don’t blame the owners for not conducting expensive training. But we need to educate the travel trade, including the owners, that it’s good for you to invest in your people.

Mohsin: Unfortunately the travel industry here at the lower level is a very poor pay master. This is a white collar job, but it’s blue collar pay because the staff are paid so very little. They have to be dressed immaculately, but at the end of the month get paid peanuts. Any training will cost you a lot – a minimum of AED1,500. Now as a travel consultant who is earning AED3,000 do you think he will shell out AED1,500? You can’t expect people to pay.

Sundar: The issue here is not about people not being aware of the need to invest in their staff. There is no denial there is a need for training and we need to do it, however I think the issue is that need is not being seen as critical for their success factor. Because if that were the case, as a trainer provider I would probably be a lot more busy!

When I hear people saying to me: “I’ve been in this job for 18 years, I don’t need training.” I just call it complacency. Unless you learn and develop your people, giving them new things to do in the organisation, how do you give them that sense of belonging?

We need to focus on the fact this is not a cost it’s an investment. Service is a question of choice for the customer, and why would anyone pay service fees to receive bad service?

ATN: Which areas of the industry do you think are the most lacking when it comes to investment in training?

Mohsin: The problem here is – not the Kanoos, or the Dnatas, I’m not talking about the top five or six agencies, they are groups of companies with a diversified business. I am talking about the mid-level of travel agencies. Their owners’ objectives at the end of the day is often how much money are we making?

Sundar: The need is not in the first tier of travel agents. The top twenty can sing from the same hymn book. But in the second tier there is a full gap. I asked a travel agency manager, “why don’t you send any of your staff for training?” And this is the kind of culture you have here amongst general managers – he replied: “We have staff with 15  years experience, what would they go and learn there?”

If you don’t have the mentality to open your minds to a new way of looking at things we will never  progress in this industry.

Annie: At many agencies, travel agents are just ticket issuers. It’s just order taking. Good service for them equates to a person being able to give an error-free ticket to the customer and not have any customer complaints.

Mohsin: There are many factors which are just never considered important factors for a travel consultant when it comes to training. On a daily basis you see customers fighting with staff. You see fares that have got hundreds of restrictions on and the staff do not explain them, so when passengers come back  and the ticket is non-refundable they say: “why didn’t you tell me?” These are issues which are very important and need improvement.

Leo: I think its a cultural issue too. Most travel consultants are brought in from the subcontinent, or the Far East. If a local comes in, they can tell him “I’m sorry the flight is full,” but they’ll end up being so intimidated they will sell him a ticket – even knowing he’ll be turned away the airport. It’s a fact; I’ve seen it in my own agency. I’ve also seen British people come in, bullying the Indian counter staff. They back off, or get completely flustered. I’ve spoken to staff time after time after time over the years. I’ve put boards in front of them saying have you sold insurance? Have you offered car hire? But it’s gone out of their heads completely. The only way you get around it is by ensuring your staff are extremely well-trained and have confidence and ability and the knowledge that the management will support them in the face of a customer.

ATN: How does the level of training offered here compare to other markets?

Tricia: It’s a huge contrast to other markets. Coming from the US, it was a shock because there were standards you have to fit or you don’t get that business, you don’t get that license or you don’t get to be at a certain agency. For example AMEX and Carlson only employ agents of a certain level so everyone aspires to it, from the smaller ‘mom and pop’ agencies, because they have the highest standards. The difference in the US is that that there are a lot of travel schools. If you graduate from a travel school you get certification. You get more money, you’re more marketable. If you’re already in the business, the company wants their people to be certified so they push them towards it. It’s like getting an MBA. They provide the means – they pay a percentage or somehow they incentivise you; sometimes they pay upfront and you pay it back once you’ve graduated and are making more money. They went to zero commission 10 years ago. It’s a  completely different mindset.

ATN: DTTAG has put travel agent training at the top of its agenda, rolling out free training courses to all members – what has the reaction been to these courses?

Sundar: I think it’s a great start. It’s a question of inspirational efforts. As we speak, today our DTTAG programmes are full. In fact they are over-subscribed, so next year we may have to run the same class twice.

Leo: At first it took time to get people to come on the courses – we had to ring round, persuading people they should come. We still get the occasional ones that don’t turn up on the day but now virtually everyone turns up.

Tricia: I have a lot of people saying when is the next class going to be? They are asking to offer it exclusively to their agents. In the beginning we were wondering how do we find people for this class, and now we are saying: “I’m sorry it’s full!” I hope from this people will realise there really is a need for training. And it could become something on a much wider scale.

Leo: The proof of the pudding is that every course is oversubscribed. As soon as we put the message out we are getting requests from agencies big and small. I am always delighted to see the smaller ones and some of the new ones that come in. It’s first-come-first-served, it’s the only way we can do it to be really fair.

ATN: How keen are agents themselves to enhance their career development? Would they pay for their own training or does the push have to come from management?

Mohsin: The senior management has to get involved into it fully and completely. The management which realises the importance of training, those companies are the ones which have grown in the market because they have invested in their people and their people have paid back. The junior staff and travel consultants who at the front line, they should be trained because they are the face of the travel agencies. But once they get a job and they start getting the salary they think that’s okay. From their side I think they have no interest at all.

Annie: I think that culture needs to change a little bit.

Leo: I would have to disagree. As a tourism board representative for Tourism Ireland [at Gulf Reps] we offer online training and the agents are delighted. We don’t have to go through the managers, we can just go straight to the agents. Some of them even do it at home  because the agencies don’t allow them internet access – and I’m talking about some of the biggest travel agencies here.

Sundar: Yes, you’d be surprised – at my last CTA [Certified Travel Associate] course – of 14 students, 11 came from the trade. They paid for it off their own backs. And 70% of those interviewed in our survey said they are willing to pay on their own, anything between AED500 – AED 1000 for a good course if they can get it in installments to do it. I think it’s fair to say there is a good amount of energy left with the individuals who want to aspire.

ATN: Given how much it costs, who should be paying for training and how can agencies be persuaded to make the investment?

Tricia: Maybe the solution is we re-think how we reward people in the travel industry. It should be through training because it makes people more marketable. Agencies could put a plan in place for their staff so that there’s a goal that you reach and your reward is that you get to attend one of these training modules.

I don’t think people should have to pay for it. Really it should be your company, your employer who pays for training. So pay for your staff – invest in them. Or put training  into their programme and let them pay it in installments, or pay you back  later. There are other ways to look at it without just saying, it costs this much. It all goes back to the importance of investing in your people.

Varghese: It comes down to the culture of the company. At Kanoo, even during the recession we conducted training throughout the company. We have it in our company guidelines that we should set a budget for AED 2000 per employee for training purposes and staff must spend a  minimum 48 hours every year on training. We have a training manager who conducts a lot of training from customer retention to customer relationships – in fact four of our staff are going to London next week for an American Express training session.

It’s important for us to invest in our people, to be knowledgeable, to know what is happening in the market and to impart the best services to our customers – that is the culture of Kanoo Group.

The deputy chairman Mishal Kanoo is very interested in our people to go and get more education and has introduced a policy such as if you want to get an MBA the company will pay 50%. This has to come from the leadership. If they are involved that’s the way that these things can move forward.

ATN: How can we ensure that the entire travel trade benefits from access to training - not just the larger agencies?

Tricia: Companies are providing training individually – but enough of doing it individually – let’s join forces. And let’s start as a team collaborating on how can we get this out to everyone else. It doesn’t matter who comes. Part of that is the market coming together as a whole under one umbrella. This market is in direct contrast to other markets I think – such as the UK, where all the agents want to be part of ABTA. You want to be in the group as you get something in return.

Sundar: As in what happens in other mature markets – training should be a must. After a certain number of years in a company you should have to have a certain amount of training. That standardisation of the industry has to come in a combination between semi-government initiatives, which could involve a body like DTTAG taking the lead.

Mohsin: I second what Sundar is saying. I think it would help to improve the service levels in the industry if they made training mandatory. All the travel agency associations should say: “This is what the travel agents should be doing in regards to training.”

Leo: The issue is with the Civil Aviation Authority and the DTCM. We have got about 74 members now of DTTAG now – its creeping up – but there are something like 300 travel agents in the market. So DTCM have no interest. That’s why the key issue is driving membership of DTTAG and why I keep reaching out to the non-members of DTTAG and saying tell us what you want.

There is a suspicion on one side from the travel trade and an indifference on the other side from the government as they think, oh well there’s only 70 agents in the body.

The problem is too many of the agencies don’t want any transparency – that suits a great deal of the travel trade here. They are the ones that don’t join DTTAG. We had a situation where EmQuest gave ten agencies the first year fees for free and they still wouldn’t join. That shows the lack of interest from many agencies in this market. For a membership fee of just AED2000 a year, if you look at the value of the training we’re providing, two people a year would more than pay for this.

ATN: Finally, what’s the one thing that needs to change in order to improve the professionalism of the industry as a whole?

Sundar: Training has to be subsidised and given to everyone to say if you get into this industry, this is the pre-requisite. Something like the National Skills development in the UK or in the US the Certified Travel Associate(CTA) – it’s a certification which most travel industry professionals recognise. You can actually put it behind your family name and carry it around.

Mohsin: There should be a fixed amount that each agency has to pay each year, then agencies will be forced to send staff for training on rotation. Then you can basically turn all your staff into professionals.

Tricia: The bigger guys in the market like EmQuest, DTTAG, Kanoo, etc the ones that have an influence, it’s part of our responsibility to do what we can. Maybe at EmQuest we could influence more training and work it into our business model, incentivise it more. The GDSs could all get together to decide to include soft skills training as part of our incentive package in agencies contracts, for example you get X amount of dollars to spend on training. This is something that could be done across all the industry.

Varghese: Even the national airlines should take some sort of interest in the travel trade when it comes to training. They have done it in the past. I think we should be able to go to them and say, we are still doing the service for you, why don’t you do any training for our staff? A couple of times they did participate in this with us.

Annie: I think together we can do a lot. There should be someone taking a lead on this and putting concrete steps into place. It’s a huge thing that DTTAG and Emquest have started the ball rolling. It’s about giving back to the industry. I’ve been in the industry now almost 20 years so I’d love to give something back to the industry. We should have a pool of trainers, and establish a travel trainer networking sessions and then we pool our resources, as part of the travel fraternity we could do trainings for free, weekends or one-on-one.

ATN’s roundtable was held in the VIP suite  at the Dusit Thani Hotel, Dubai.

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