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28 Apr, 2008

PATA CEO Challenge Opens, Minus the Keynote Speaker

When the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s PATA CEO Challenge opens here tomorrow morning, most of the association’s own board members will not be present, nor will the keynote speaker, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Dr Rajendra Pachauri.

Citing a number of professional or personal reasons, roughly 50 of the nearly 80-member board will not be turning up for the event. And Dr Pachauri, who was to have been the star attraction, has cancelled his appearance, citing health reasons, according to officials of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, one of the event’s major sponsors.

Inspite of heavy promotions, publicity on CNN and a last-ditch appeal by PATA President and CEO Peter de Jong at the last Colombo board meeting on April 8, the event is expecting to attract a mere 250 delegates, or only half the 500 projected in the preliminary presentations made to the board at its previous meeting in September 2007.

Although PATA officials have claimed that they prefer to focus on the “quality rather than quantity” of the event, a high turnout was necessary in order to make the association “look good”.

However, the fact that most of PATA’s own board members have chosen to stay away is seen as a show of low-confidence in the management and organisation of the event.

A copy of the board working papers made available to this columnist last week contained a fervent appeal by Mr. de Jong for board members to sign up.

“”This is your (Mr. de Jong’s italics) event, just as this is your association,” Mr. de Jong wrote. “If the PATA CEO Challenge is to grow and flourish, we need you, who ‘own’ the event, to experience and embrace it.”

Although minutes of the September 2007 board meeting clearly indicate a target of 400-500, Mr. de Jong told the board in Colombo that the new target was 250-300 delegates.

“In terms of the quality of the event, we can easily hold a successful (event) with the current roster of speakers, presenters and participants.

“However, we wish to reach or surpass the 250 delegate mark in order to financially break even. If we fall short and have to assume a modest loss, this can be seen as a smart investment in a new event that holds great promise for PATA’s future.”

One director said that when the roughly 65 board members present in Colombo were asked for a show of hands to check how many had registered, “only about 10 raised their hands. They were then asked how many intended to register. Only about 10 more raised their hands.”

PATA’s Director of Operations Mike Yates had also told the board last September that “iconic speakers” like Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev and Rupert Murdoch would be approached as “possible keynote speakers.” None materialised.

Board members have cited numerous reasons for staying away, from having “other commitments” to an inability to get airline bookings to the high registration cost.

One Indian director said that even after the original registration cost of US$ 1,890 was cut to US$ 1,390, it was much too high, especially after hotel and air-fares are included. “I asked for a discount, but they declined,” he said. Instead, he chose to attend the World Travel & Tourism Council summit in Dubai last week.

Board members from the UK and U.S. said they did not have time to attend both the Colombo board meeting and the Bangkok conference, as it would have required two trips to Asia in less than month.

One U.S. board member commented: “With all the discussion worldwide about the environment — by many senior level business people – I really do not need to fly halfway around the world again to hear more theory and practices.”

A number of board members are upset by what they see as an attempt by the PATA management and executive committee to blame them for the low turnout.

In recent interviews, both outgoing PATA chairman Brian Deeson and executive committee member Alwin Zecha have said the board members will have to accept responsibility because they signed off on the concept and content of the conference.

Said one board member, “If you take a close look at it, none of the promised attendance or financial targets will have been met. To blame us for this is ridiculous.”

In his letter to the board, Mr. de Jong has already signalled how the eventual outcome will be spun.

Said the letter, “The strategic benefit to PATA, quite apart from being seen as the creator and convenor of this high-level forum, will be to have connected and brought together several hundred industry leaders, among them many who had not previously or recently connected with PATA.

“This not only boosts PATA’s brand and clout, but it broadens our connectivity with many influential industry leaders.”

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