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21 Jan, 2008

PATA Blackout on “CEO Challenge” Registrations

The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) last Friday released a preliminary programme of its “CEO Challenge” conference on tourism and climate change to be held in Bangkok this April even as it struggled to meet a target of 500 registrations.

A PATA spokesperson said a blackout had been placed on releasing information about the number of registrations received so far. And the event’s communications director resigned after only two months on the job.

Questions about the event to PATA President & CEO Mr Peter de Jong went unresponded.

Supported by the Tourism Authority of Thailand which has pledged 5 million baht for the event, the CEO Challenge is to be held April 29-30. PATA is claiming it to be “the first opportunity for the entire travel and tourism industry in Asia Pacific to agree to practical solutions to confront climate change.”

The event is expected to play a major role in bolstering PATA’s financial situation. According to plans presented at a board of directors meeting last year, it is projected to generate a profit based on budgeted revenues of US$ 704,000 and expenses of US$ 673,560.

However, an internal PATA memo seen by this columnist indicated that as of 11 January, there were only 12 paying registrations. Another six were non-paying delegates, who were either endorsees or speakers.

Industry sources said with only 14 weeks to go, a major operation is under way to start roping in speakers and delegates, and that this week will be critical for the event.

A senior executive of one convention and exhibition organisation company said that normally, if conferences seeking to attract chief executives did not by this stage have at least half the targetted registrations in hand, they could be considered “to be in deep trouble.”

“CEOs have their calendars planned months in advance,” the executive said. “It’s unlikely they will turn up at the last minute. They may just send someone on their behalf.”

The initial programme posted on the website last Friday lists Cathay Pacific Managing Director Mr Anthony Tyler and Mr Edwin Fuller, President and Managing Director International, Marriott Hotels and Resorts, as among the confirmed speakers with more “soon to be advised.”

However, in informal discussions at the PATA Thailand chapter executive committee and AGM earlier last week, members indicated that they were facing a chicken and egg situation.

“They were interested but they wanted to know what the programme looked like,” said one committee member who declined to be identified. They also wanted to know the registration rate and when they were told it was US$1,390 for early-bird registrations for PATA members, they all went ooooooohhhh.”

An update and registration report is expected to be provided at the next board meeting to be held in Sri Lanka on April 5-6.

If registrations remain well below target by that time, PATA executives are anticipating that many of the board members will have to help bailout the event. Said one PATA member, “They know they will have to step in because their own professional and corporate interests will be affected.”

One executive committee member said he was still optimistic that the targets would be met. He noted that consultancies like Burba Hotel Network and the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation had been hired on a profit-sharing basis to bring in delegates and would have to deliver “as their name is involved in it, too.”

Some PATA life members are already seeking discounted access. Media access is being restricted to an “invitation-only” basis, which has never applied to previous PATA events.

In a related move, the event’s communications director Mr Blaise Hopkinson resigned abruptly. He had been hired on a six-month contract to drum up publicity for the event. He declined comment on the reasons for his sudden departure.

That makes him the third middle-management PATA executive to leave within four months, after Assistant Director of Communications Ms Min Ming Wong, who left after only 11 months on the job, and the director of membership, Louise Butler, who left at the end of Nov 2007.

Another looming threat is the competition from other similar-themed events; climate change is on the agenda of the “Innovations & Trends” conference organised annually alongside the ITB Berlin, the world’s largest travel industry show, in early March.

Another seminar on “Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation in the Tourism Sector” focusing specially on developing countries and small island states is being organised between 7-11 April at Oxford University in the UK.

The seminar is being coordinated by the UN Environment Programme and Oxford University’s Centre for the Environment jointly with the UN World Tourism Organisation.

It is being billed as a “high-level practical seminar for tourism stakeholders focusing on capacity building and pragmatic adaptation and mitigation techniques, tools and methods for developing countries and small island states to address the problems and meet the challenges presented by climate change.”

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