The Certified Tourism Ambassador program, launched in 2006 on the premise that the best way to market a destination is through its people, recently certified its 5,000th travel-industry worker.

The CTA program was created by Mickey Schaefer, CAE, president, Mickey Schaefer and Associates, Tucson, Ariz., to train front-line employees—those who face visitors and meeting attendees—to be ambassadors for their destinations. The program reaches beyond front-desk clerks at hotels, says Schaefer, who also created the Tourism Ambassador Institute to administer the CTA program. It includes anyone who serves visitors, such as cab drivers, tour operators, airport workers, shuttle drivers, restaurant workers, visitor center employees, policemen, and realtors, plus workers at attractions, casinos, and parks.

So far, a total of 5,000 employees have earned the CTA designation across nearly a dozen destinations including Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz.; Anaheim, Calif.; the Kansas City area; Lexington, Ky.; Baltimore; Fayetteville, N.C.; Dallas; Spokane, Wash.; Milwaukee and Door County, Wis.; and an entity called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, which encompasses a four-state region from Gettysburg, Pa., through Maryland and West Virginia to Monticello, Va. Dozens more destinations have expressed interest in this initiative.

The CTA program is designed to improve the experience that attendees have when they visit a destination, says Schaefer. No matter how great the meeting, the content, or the attractions, one bad experience for an attendee at the airport or in a cab can negate all the positives. On the other hand, good service can leave attendees with a good overall impression of the visit. Those seemingly minor interactions create emotional connections, Schaefer says, and often, it’s those experiences that people remember and tell their friends about. “We spend millions on marketing and branding, but how much time do we spend on the experience?” she asks.

The training program is designed to improve workers’ attitudes, performance, and knowledge. Customized for each destination, it educates employees on tourism, attractions in the region, the history of the destination, and how best to serve and interact with visitors. The program also is adding a module to teach workers how to interact with international visitors. After successfully completing the program, workers can use the CTA on their nametags or business cards. They are required to recertify annually.

The 5,000th person to earn the CTA designation was Sandra Plant, CTA, of Lexington, Ky. She is a volunteer for the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington. Overall, the Lexington CVB facilitated the certification of 700 CTAs, and is in the process of certifying 600 police officers. “This program helps by equipping both those on the front lines and regular community members with the information needed to be better hosts,” said David Lord, president of the Lexington CVB, in a press release.