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AAA Introduces Innovative Travel Agent Apprentice Program

The travel sales associate apprentice program is the first of Its kind in the country.

From left, Kathy Ruffley, Caitlyn Carlson, Travel Associate, Alicia Silvia, Caitlyn Triggs, Elise Snyder and Sharon Snowdale with Candace Grist, associate professor at the Community College of Rhode Island.

When it comes to vacation planning, more people in recent years have returned to the tried-and-true expertise of travel agents, according to AAA Travel experts, citing MMGY Global research. People in their mid-20s to late 30s, the same generation known for its reliance on technology, are more likely than others to choose the personal approach to travel planning. These Gen Yers, aka millennials, are also expected to book the most trips in coming years.

AAA Northeast has responded to the growing demand for traditional travel agents with a one-of-a-kind, federally recognized apprentice program. It combines formal education, on-the-job training, mentoring and resource sharing to build the skills and knowledge expected from a trusted travel agent.

“I’m incredibly proud of this innovative training program,” said Cyndi Zesk, vice president of travel services for AAA Northeast. “We are the first travel organization in the country to launch an official apprenticeship program in conjunction with, and certified by, the U.S. Department of Labor.”

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AAA travel agents are among the most qualified in the industry. The apprentices are expected to live up to the same high standards when they step into travel agent roles, said Keri Borba, director of learning and development for AAA Northeast, who designed the program in collaboration with AAA Travel.

In January, six apprentices entered the program, beginning with coursework at the Community College of Rhode Island. Throughout the one-year program, they will return to the classroom and continue supplemental education through the Travel Institute, a Massachusetts-based travel industry training and certification organization.

On the Job

The new travel sales associates are now situated aside established agents at AAA branches in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The program will expand to other regions in the AAA Northeast territory when academic partnerships are solidified, Borba said.

Kathy Ruffley is working with Helen Devoe in Fairhaven, Mass. Caitlyn Carlson is with Pauline Costantino in Cranston, R.I. Alicia Silvia is in Narragansett, R.I., with Caroline Haylett. Caitlyn Triggs is with Krista Cossaboom in Milford, Conn. Elise Snyder is in Worcester, Mass., with Linda Burke. Sharon Snowdale is with Lynn Peredetto in Rockland, Mass.

Fairhaven, Mass.

Kathy Ruffley, left, and Helen Devoe.

Kathy was already working in the Fairhaven branch before she was hired for her new role. She took a travel and tourism certificate program after high school but went into retail management instead. “As a travel sales associate, I look forward to learning the industry from behind the scenes to make a better transition to becoming a travel agent,” she said. “I enjoy researching destinations. I love to learn about different countries and cultures. I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when people come back and want to tell me about the trip of their dreams.”

Helen hopes that with her encouragement, Kathy’s enthusiasm will continue to grow. “To have passion for this industry makes this career choice enjoyable every day.” One of the most important traits of a successful travel agent, she said, is “a desire to help people and make dreams come true.”

Rockland, Mass.

Sharon Snowdale was working at another travel agency when she applied for the travel sales associate program at AAA. “I wanted to be able to learn more about the travel industry without getting thrown into a position I knew nothing about, so this kind of training is perfect,” she said.

“The opportunity to mentor a new Travel Sales Associate is a privilege,” said agent Lynn Peredetto. “To assist someone in learning the process is an honor and a learning experience for the travel agent as well. It reminds one where the love for travel comes from. It is rewarding to see them learn and grow.”

Cranston, R.I.

Caitlyn Carlson, left, and Pauline Costantino.

Caitlyn Carlson was a AAA member service counselor in the Warwick, R.I., branch when she heard about the new program from travel agent Bruce Hebert. “I was really interested in the position because I have always wanted to be a travel agent,” Carlson said. “I thought this would be a great way for me to get my feet wet and learn the processes behind being an agent.”

After only a week, Carlson had already become an invaluable member of the Cranston team, Costantino said. “She has great attention to detail and is handling a lot of our client serving needs.”

Costantino is happy to help an apprentice grow into a professional role. “I hope that when Caitlyn transitions into a sales agent position, she will be confident to handle member needs, confront problems and properly resolve issues while building a loyal clientele.” she said.

Respondents told researchers that they use travel agents mainly because of their knowledge about destinations and their ability to resolve unexpected problems during a vacation.

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