Ayako Ezaki, Co-founder, TrainingAidAyako Ezaki, Co-founder, TrainingAid"What matters most in learning are people: the interactions you have with others as part of the learning experience, and the connections you build because of it"

Ayako Ezaki is the Head of Knowledge Management & Communications and Co-Founder of TrainingAid. Ms Ezaki specialises in educational program design and project planning and also brings many years of experience in online communications and social media marketing. Through TrainingAid's partnership with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), Ayako Ezaki serves as Training Director to develop, manage and market the GSTC Sustainable Tourism Training Program. In addition, she serves on the global advisory board of Good and Green Guides and on the judging panel for Wild Asia's Responsible Tourism Awards (2013-2015), while she is also a member of Ecotourism Japan's organiser team. Prior to starting at TrainingAid, she worked as Director of Communications for The International Ecotourism Society. Ms Ezaki has contributed to various publications, including “Sustainable Tourism & the Millennium Development Goals” (2012) and “Have Fork Will Travel: A Practical Handbook for Food & Drink Tourism Professionals” (2014).

ECOCLUB.com: The great fall in the cost of interactive communications including video-conferencing, along with ever-rising fees in traditional learning institutions, job insecurity, rising unemployment and ensuing pressures for life-long learning, have all opened the way to a new booming e-learning industry with relatively low barriers to entry. This probably implies an intense competition between new, smaller and ever-specialised providers as well as with older, classic education institutions. Do you feel that this situation necessitates or cancels the need to certify or accredit online courses from outside bodies?

Ayako Ezaki: I think that an important aspect of the state of education today (whether online or in the classroom) is that there is an increasing demand for more diverse learning opportunities. I do not think there should be any “competition” between e-learning and traditional learning; rather, online learning tools should be used to make learning more accessible and to help improve the quality of learning. The terms such as “e-learning” and “online courses” encompass such a wide range of program types, approaches and purposes that it would be impossible to discuss in any meaningful manner quality standards for all online courses. Within a specific sector, however, accreditation of course providers might be a relevant and useful consideration. For such a solution to actually work, an accreditation program would need to clearly establish the context of who’s accrediting what for whom and - importantly - why, and it would also need to achieve a high level of awareness both among the intended audience (e.g. educational institutions) and their “customers” (e.g. students). The evolution of the online learning field, the current “ecosystem” of training and education opportunities, and future development in tourism training are all part of what we’re interested in, and would like to actively contribute to. And for that reason, we’re currently conducting a research project, “Tourism Skills+Jobs”, focused on training and skills development opportunities for tourism professionals. As stated in the project description, we believe that the knowledge and skills that individuals working in tourism bring to the industry not only matter for the success of tourism businesses and destinations, but they are also a key factor in supporting the sustainable development of the tourism industry as a whole. The goal of the research project is to offer useful insights into current (online and offline) training opportunities and to deliver practical recommendations for tourism industry organisations. 

ECOCLUB.com: Successful startups sometimes bring a key innovation (create a new need) or meet a previously unmet need. Is this the case with TrainingAid or are there other keys to your success?

Ayako Ezaki: I think that a key to a successful startup - or any business for that matter - is to offer valuable products and services that effectively address customers’ wants and needs. Coming up with new ideas and unique products is, of course, important and can be a key factor to business success. At the same time, I think that innovation can come in different forms and that the concept of innovation and entrepreneurship is not exclusive to tech startups, as these conversations often make it seem. Our focus, in terms of e-learning, is to use online tools to make learning more accessible and engaging. This means not just creating new services to address unmet needs, but - perhaps more importantly - providing better solutions to existing needs. One example that we’re working on, and are thrilled to share, is our 4-Week Courses, which are a new addition to our online course offerings that combine the convenience of online, on-demand learning with the benefits of interactive people-focused learning. We know - both from our own experiences and from comments by our industry colleagues - that at the end of the day, what matters most in learning are people: the interactions you have with others as part of the learning experience, and the connections you build because of it. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a small in-person workshop, a large classroom lecture, or an online course. It is the human connections that make any learning experience meaningful and memorable (which also means better performance results), so that’s what we’re focusing on with these courses, and thankfully, there are many online tools and solutions that help make things easier!

Social Media Week Hamburg: TrainingAid has participated in tourism-related sessions and workshops at "Social Media Week” in Hamburg.Social Media Week Hamburg: TrainingAid has participated in tourism-related sessions and workshops at "Social Media Week” in Hamburg.ECOCLUB.com: We note that the founders of TrainingAid held leading positions at The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) for many years. How did this influence your decision to start up TrainingAid, the course content, and what were the main initial challenges that you had to overcome as a startup?

Ayako Ezaki: Working with TIES, we both had various opportunities to be part of, organise and lead training courses and educational programs such as workshops, seminars, conferences and online presentations. I think these experiences played a key role in both preparing us for and influencing our decision to start TrainingAid. In a less tangible (but no less important) way, I also think the fact that we worked for a long time with an industry association with an international network has shaped the way we think of and approach our own network. The “community” you have - your customers, members, partners - is a key part of your identity, and that’s not only for membership organisations (whose identities are by definition closely tied to their members). And our key challenge was and continues to be, to build and serve our community.

ECOCLUB.com: Traditional higher education and vocational education establishments were perhaps taken by surprise by the sudden demand for e-learning, but many have now caught up and offer the so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) for free or at a greatly lower cost than their traditional comparable programs via big platforms. Why should a tourism practitioner choose a paid online course for vocational skills from a small, specialist company rather than opt for a MOOC by a well-known university? Personal, tailor-made service vs. a mass-produced service?

Ayako Ezaki: I have participated in several MOOCs myself and have found some (I must say, unfortunately, not all) of them to be interesting, insightful and valuable. It is important to recognise that a MOOC by a University offers a learning experience that is - naturally - focused on academic approaches and requirements. For instance, a typical MOOC may include required reading materials, (live or recorded) lectures, quizzes and exams, and assignments such as essays and research papers. And these may or may not be appropriate, depending on individuals learning goals and purposes. Some students choose a passive approach, and only watch parts of the video content without taking part in discussions or assignments. That may be enough, depending on what you want to get out of a MOOC. Personally, I feel the “auditing” approach is not worth it, and I only choose to join and stay with a MOOC if I can actually participate in discussions and other activities (which means committing several hours a week). I absolutely think that MOOCs can and should be considered as part of the available tools and resources for tourism professionals seeking learning and skills-building opportunities. They should not, however, be considered as the solution for all professional development needs. What’s important in determining whether a MOOC (or any other type of online course) is an appropriate option or not is properly understanding the context of learning: who needs to learn what and why.

ECOCLUB.com: Does a busy hospitality practitioner - for example the middle-aged owners of a busy family hotel - as opposed to a young aspiring hospitality consultant, really have the time and energy to follow and learn through an online course, rather than just hire someone to do the job?

Ayako Ezaki: I think that the question that a busy hospitality practitioner should ask is: where do I have the greatest need for training and skills development? Hiring someone who has the exact skill set you need for your business is one approach. But team building does not stop when you hire someone; continuing to invest in their knowledge and skills is not only an important part of business development priorities, but it’s also a must if you want your business to stay relevant through innovation. When it comes to business philosophy on training staff, I appreciate the wisdom in this famous quote by Richard Branson: “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they do not want to. If you look after your staff, they will look after your customers. It is that simple.” And a key part of looking after your staff should be empowering them through opportunities for skills development and professional growth.

ECOCLUB.com: Are there to your knowledge any scientific studies indicating how easy and efficient is it for someone to learn from an interactive online presentation, as opposed to experiential, on the job, field training? Do you see a need for a way to combine these two? And are there any statistics, or any reliable method to calculate the impact of online tourism training on one's career, for example, increased earnings?

Ayako Ezaki: First, the question of “online vs. on the job” should not be handled in a generalised manner, rather, it should be approached in a way that emphasises appropriate context, keeping in mind that some types of learning content are more suitable than others for certain delivery methods. And on that point, here is a quote from FAO’s e-learning guide that explains learning approaches relevant to specific types of skills: “A training program may aim at developing different types of skills: cognitive skills, which can involve knowledge and comprehension (e.g. understanding scientific concepts), following instructions (procedural skills), as well as applying methods in new situations to solve problems (thinking or mental skills); interpersonal skills (e.g. skills involved in active listening, presenting, negotiating, etc.); as well as psychomotor skills, involving the acquisition of physical perceptions and movements (e.g. making sports or driving a car). ...Most e-learning courses are developed to build cognitive skills; the cognitive domain is the most suitable for e-learning. Within the cognitive domain, thinking skills may require more interactive e-learning activities because those skills are learned better “by doing”. Learning in the interpersonal domain can also be addressed in e-learning by using specific methods. For example, interactive role playing with appropriate feedback can be used to change attitudes and behaviours.”  And regarding the “the impact of online tourism training in one’s career”, I haven’t done any research specifically on this, but I think, similar to the point that I made earlier, that for any training effort (online or otherwise) to have any meaningful impact, it should be offered in the right context, addressing the actual needs of those who are being trained and offering benefits that are relevant to their professional fields. I think that too often training and capacity building programs are offered without properly addressing these considerations. This point is echoed by Dr Xavier Font, who noted in our interview article, about “common mistakes that trainers make”: “We do not stop to find out the impact of our training. I think this is a collective problem with trainers, we measure outputs (number of participants) and possibly outcomes (how satisfied they were with the course) but not the impact (what they have done differently in their jobs and what consequences this has had to their business objectives).”

ECOCLUB.com: Tourism is a global and multicultural phenomenon. Is it odd that most of the online vocational courses in Tourism are in English? Is there not enough demand (and a great business opportunity) for, among others, Spanish, Chinese and French courses?

Ayako Ezaki: I agree that there is a need for more quality training content in languages other than English. For us, having our programs in English only (for now!) has been more about practicality than about potential market demand. We, of course, see the advantages of offering training opportunities in other languages, but at the same time, we are mindful of the fact that doing something (and in particular, something that deals with knowledge and skills) in another language is not just about having the ability to communicate in that language. It is also about knowing the socio-cultural context of where the target audience in that language comes from, and having a solid understanding of the on-the-ground reality of tourism professionals in that context. So our goal, if we are to pursue business opportunities in another language, will be to make sure that we have the right contacts and channels to get the context right, not just the language.

ECOCLUB.com: Your tourism courses seem to focus more on digital marketing rather than on hands-on sustainability practices (for example "how to plan and install a greywater system in a hotel"). Is that something that you wish to address, or do you prefer to specialise in tourism marketing?

Ayako Ezaki: The focus on marketing-related topics for our first on-demand courses has been in part driven by our assessment of topics suitable for the format (as mentioned earlier, on the question about e-learning methodologies and skills types), and partly guided by the feedback we’ve received from our community members about what they’re interested in. Having said that, we are widening our scope in terms of the topics we cover through our courses, and one of the main topic areas we are working to build more content for is “Sustainability + Competitiveness”. We are passionate about sustainable tourism and want to make sustainability a key part of what we do and why we do it. But it is also important for us to focus not just on sustainability practices, but on sustainability practices as an integral component of business performance and financial bottom line.

ECOCLUB.com: What key elements someone who is trying to choose a quality online training course from a small, specialist provider, should look for, so as to avoid disappointment?

Ayako Ezaki: I would encourage anyone considering any online (or offline, for that matter) training opportunity to ask questions. Contact the trainer or the training program provider, and ask if the particular course you are considering is right for you (and if so, why). If you have specific goals in mind (e.g. you want to be able to do X at the level required by your employer), ask if the course can help with those specific goals.The answer you receive, and the quality of the communications (is it timely, appropriate and helpful?) can be useful indicators to help with your decision. At the same time, thinking about and formulating the specific questions you want to ask the trainer or the training provider can also be a good way to evaluate your specific learning needs. Being aware of what you’re seeking to achieve through training will help you make the most of the training opportunity you choose, and this applies to anyone considering any type of training programs.

Ecotourism Japan: "Whenever I’m in Japan I try to join a meeting or an educational event by Ecotourism Japan"Ecotourism Japan: "Whenever I’m in Japan I try to join a meeting or an educational event by Ecotourism Japan"ECOCLUB.com: You are also involved with Japanese tourism. What is your overall assessment of its environmental, economic and social sustainability and of the adequacy of related public and private sector policies?

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to connect with Dr Martha Honey of the Center for Responsible Travel, about the Japanese version of her book “Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise”. One of the topics I have commented on, and which I am personally really interested in, is how tourism businesses and destinations in Japan can (and in my opinion, should) focus more on diversifying their offers. From the public sector perspective, Japan's tourism goals in the coming years (especially in the context of Japan hosting the Olympic Games in 2020) is both to increase the number of international visitors and to encourage more visitors to go "off the beaten paths" to see not just Tokyo and Kyoto, but go discover other parts of the country as well. I think and hope that this can be an opportunity for ecotourism and community tourism organisations that are working hard at the grassroots level to attract more international visitors. In the private sector, especially in less well-known regions, more resources are needed to help improve product development and marketing efforts. There may be a “win-win” opportunity for Japanese tourism to strengthen collaboration among the public, private and civil society sectors since these top-down vision (to diversify offers) and bottom-up efforts (to attract more visitors to travel off the beaten paths) are essentially working towards the same goal.

ECOCLUB.com: What has the Fukushima effect been on Japanese tourism so far and are there any lessons in your view to be learned by other countries with important tourism sectors thinking of introducing nuclear energy?

This is a topic I could spend hours and hours discussing, and in this particular context (the impact of the nuclear disaster on communities and destinations) it is also a very emotional topic, because, beyond the tourism brand and visitor numbers, the accident has impacted, and continues to impact, the lives of local people and their relationships with the land. I have been part of the group of advisors for Ecotourism Japan (“national ecotourism centre”), and I am particularly proud to be a member of this group when considering how the organisation has brought together local and national tourism stakeholders to facilitate relief and rebuilding efforts after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Ecotourism Japan was a leading force behind the “RQ Citizens Disaster Relief Network Japan”, which was established in 2011, has continued to run various volunteer-led efforts to support communities affected by natural disasters, and has since evolved into its current form as a non-profit organization focused on disaster relief, disaster education and risk reduction. Being actively engaged in disaster relief and community rebuilding efforts, it is perhaps no surprise that Ecotourism Japan has made its anti-nuclear stance clear and has been a vocal advocate for community-powered, democratic and sustainable solutions to the energy crisis. I admire and support their efforts in this area, as well as the important role they play in raising the profiles of key socio-cultural, political and environmental issues including those that may not be directly related to tourism (but then again, so many socio-cultural, political and environmental issues are related to tourism in many important ways!): from rural community development to disaster preparedness, to renewable energy to traditional crafts.

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, does TrainingAid aspire to become a big and diversified online & off-line training provider, or would you rather stay a specialist outfit and why?

We do aim to become more diversified in terms of various training-related opportunities we explore in partnerships with industry organisations. We plan to remain focused on our specialised field of travel and tourism, but we are not limiting ourselves to being an “e-learning company”, as we are more interested in exploring the cross-section of online and “offline” training approaches.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much, we wish every success to you and TrainingAid.