On recent trips to Angola and Ghana to host the African Business Travel Association (ABTA) forums for local travel industry professionals, the issue of basic skills training was identified by delegates as a key challenge in these regions.

My question was: “Just how basic are we talking?” The responses to my question, though not particularly surprising, caused a bit of concern; not because of the level of skills training required, but because of the severe lack of access to training and attitudes towards how this training should come about.

Delegates spoke of a myriad of issues pertaining to lack of skills, including basic telephone skills and etiquette, reservations processes and client details often not being recorded, with the result that if flights get cancelled, no one knows how to reach the client. The lack of basic computer skills including how to work on Word and Excel were also identified.

Then the forum also looked at the role of a travel agent consultant, which seems fairly undefined in these regions. Making recommendations on better routings, cheaper options, current discounts and promotions and so on does not seem to be something ‘consultants’ are trained to do. Yes, there are some fantastic travel management consultants in both regions that operate on a far higher global standard, but for the most part, the industry is in dire need of some basic training.

For the most part, delegates indicated that they were waiting for someone to train their staff. It was mentioned that the local travel agent’s associations should take the lead, but they stated that they can’t do that without the government and tourism ministries getting involved – a constant backwards and forwards as to who should be responsible for this training. The option of mentorship and on-the-job training was mentioned but it was clear that the concept of tackling the issue head on and training up your own staff in lieu of lack of access to training facilities and options is not something previously considered in these regions.

A brave delegate also mentioned that they might consider mentoring their staff but the staff weren’t particularly interested in learning and that many companies were hiring cheap labour – individuals with no skills and even less motivation – and were therefore faced with trying to upskill staff with very little interest in anything but their monthly pay check and finding ways to sneak into the office late and undetected.

Another fairly big concern, which plays into all of this, is the lack of communication between travel agents and travel suppliers, specifically airlines and hotels. It would seem that suppliers don’t value the role that travel agents play as a sales channel and do not strive to have partnerships in place with travel agents who can do what agents are meant to do – sell their product. It is therefore not surprising that a client will not get what they ask for, as the consultants who should have knowledge on a range of products and services have very little contact with the suppliers whose products and services they are meant to sell. So giving clients alternative options and recommendations can be a bit difficult.

So, what is the solution? Well, the honest answer is that these regions (as with the majority of African countries) face a long and fairly uphill battle. Possible solutions include the development of basic skills courses that can be delivered to local industry staff via local partners and affiliates, access to online skills training allowing individuals to participate in continuous professional development from the comfort of their computers, ABTA events focused on increasing communication between travel agents and suppliers in order to encourage stronger, mutually beneficial partnerships, and a closer collaboration of ABTA with local travel agent’s associations and government bodies to try to facilitate more involvement in the funding and delivery of industry training.

The road will be long, but the first steps have been taken, and ABTA feels excited and privileged to be a part of building a new and more professional era in the African business travel industry.