With debates surrounding unbonded agents and the growth of homeworking groups recruiting from outside the industry, is it time for a formal travel-selling qualification? Benjamin Coren reports

A majority of agents believe there should be some form of accreditation for travel sellers, according to an exclusive Travel Weekly survey.

The poll of 63 agent members of Tipto found 84% believe there should be a travel agent accreditation scheme, be it a course, certificate, qualification or licence.

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That view was echoed by a similar proportion (86%) of 291 respondents to the same question on Travel Weekly’s Facebook page.

So with debates surrounding unbonded agents and the growth of homeworking organisations recruiting from outside the industry hitting trade headlines, is it time accreditation was introduced?

Tipto agents taking part in the survey were invited to comment anonymously. One said: “I think it would help customers know who are serious travel agents and those that just do it when it suits them as extra income.” Another said any new scheme would “need to have different levels based on years of experience and destinations visited, not just online training courses”.

Agent Paul Knapper, owner of Spires Travel in Worcester, said: “Selling travel is a skilled job, [but] people can just walk in with no experience at the moment. This is an industry issue. There needs to be a qualification or even a licence.”

What’s the supplier view?

Some suppliers say they would feel more comfortable with their product in the hands of accredited agents.

Derek Jones, chief executive of Kuoni parent Der Touristik UK, said: “There’s nothing guaranteed or certified as a certain standard. As a supplier there’s no independent verified standard of customer service that we can point to.”

Others disagree. Eden Collection travel director Ben Murtagh said: “In any industry you get people who are ‘qualified’ and have more degrees than you can shake a stick at, but that doesn’t mean they are good at their jobs. Sticking an accreditation on ‘integrity’ and ‘professionalism’ just doesn’t work, as who is there to measure it?

“It should not be about accreditation, but rather how people do things. Knowledge and service are most important. People sell travel in different ways, through their passion or quality of service, and you can’t grade that. The knowledge is too varied. A piece of paper saying they are qualified won’t change anything.”

Recent Abta research found 25% of workers in the industry are educated to degree level, 33% to A-level and 36% to GCSE level or equivalent, while 6.5% have completed an apprenticeship.

The association did not express an opinion as to whether a formal accreditation was needed, but a spokesman said frontline skills were “a big area of focus” this year.

Who would run a scheme?

If an accreditation scheme was introduced, would it be an entry requirement or something that could be gained while on the job? And who would regulate it?

David Moon, head of business development at The Advantage Travel Partnership, said: “There are merits to an accreditation scheme. It would help to improve standards and it would resonate with consumers.

“But should it be just for travel agents? What about other travel professionals like tour operators?”

Moon added: “It could be quite a big undertaking. Would it be just for people coming into the industry? How would it be policed?”

“The other question is, who would carry out the training and certify it? Would it be Abta, an independent third party or even the government?”

Moon suggested a voluntary and “self-policing” accreditation scheme could be more realistic, but questioned the cost and whether the business or the individual would foot the bill.

Jones said the type of scheme depends on what is being recognised. “The breadth of knowledge within the industry is vast, but in terms of customer service, package travel regulations and best practice, there are a number of things that are generic,” he said.

Would it be a barrier to entry?

One argument against accreditation is that it may close the door on entrants to the industry.

Tipto agent survey respondents do not agree. While some suggested the price of taking an entry-level exam might put people off becoming a travel agent, two-thirds (67%) did not think having to gain a qualification would be a deterrent. Some suggested an apprenticeship-style model, where accreditation is earned in work, would be a better option.

Knapper added: “I don’t think a form of accreditation would stop people coming into the industry. Instead, you will get the right people who want to come in and want to learn and gain the qualification.”

Wilma Taylor, human resources director of Barrhead Travel, said: “There may be plenty of existing training courses and initiatives, such as modern apprenticeships and travel and tourism qualifications through study, but having a standardised accreditation could offer a route for those who may not have had the opportunity to study elsewhere.

“Regardless of background, age or education, an accreditation would be a route open to everyone – irrespective of career stage.

“We would support an accreditation scheme for both newcomers and existing agents.”

Do you think some form of agent accreditation scheme should be introduced? Email benjamin.coren@travelweekly.co.uk

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