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5 May, 2008

Lowest Turnout Ever At A PATA Conference

The Pacific Asia Travel Association last week sought to keep the focus of its message on the environmental outcomes of its first CEO Challenge conference while downplaying the fact that it recorded the lowest turnout of paying delegates in the history of PATA conferences.

At the closing press conference after the two-day event last week, PATA President and CEO Peter de Jong hailed the discussions as “fruitful, informative, powerful and useful.”

He said the event had generated “multi-sectoral, cross-sectoral cooperation all along the food chain” with “everyone coming out of their silos” in presenting ideas, initiatives and “practical solutions” that the travel & tourism industry can come up with to tackle the climate change issue.

Mr. de Jong acknowledged that the turnout of PATA members “might not have been as good as we would have liked”, but that it had been a case of “quality over quantity.”

“The name (CEO Challenge) implies that this was not meant to be an event for everybody. In fact we could probably cap participation for future years to a number not much beyond what it is today, because the concept that we developed does not lend itself to a product size.

“It’s really much more relevant and easier to work with a peer group who have a real interest in the issue of climate change and are committing to invest the time and resources of their company to look into this issue.”

Mr. de Jong reported 236 delegates and 350 if media and accompanying persons are included. A closer look at the delegates list indicated 62 from Thailand, including six PATA staff and one media consultant, 14 Tourism Authority of Thailand staff and six Thai Airways International staff.

Representative of other sponsors like Thailand Elite Card, World Travel Service and Thailand Exhibition and Convention Bureau were also listed. After excluding the speakers, sponsors and moderators, the actual list of paying delegates was calculated at barely 140.

The last annual conference in April 2006, which the CEO Challenge was designed to replace, was held in Pattaya and attracted more than 1,100 delegates.

The keynote speaker, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Dr Rajendra Pachauri cancelled at the last minute, and sent his presentation by DVD. Others like Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon and Banyan Tree Executive Chairman Ho Kwon Ping also pulled out and sent subordinates.

One board member said PATA was projecting a loss of US$30-40,000, which would have been far worse had the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the various Thai organisations not provided funding support.

TAT Advisor Udom Metatamrongsiri told the closing press conference that the TAT had originally budgeted 7 million baht for the event but actually spent much less because of the lower than expected turnout.

The delegates list also indicated a low airline turnout, not a single travel industry association from any Asian country other than Thailand, and no national tourism organisations from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. The China National Tourism Administration sent three delegates. India’s Tourism Ministry had two.

Australia had the second largest contingent after Thailand with 26, Singapore 20, U.S. and Hong Kong 13 each, Malaysia 10 and UK and Canada, 9 each. South Pacific islands were well represented.

Inspite of the low turnout, Mr. de Jong claimed that nearly all the response forms had rated the event as being “good to excellent”.

He declared the new-format, single-theme concept a “success” and said that it will be repeated, with further details yet to be discussed about when, where, how and on what topic to organise future CEO Challenges.

A member of the executive committee said that Mr. de Jong has already told them that he does not plan to stay on at PATA after his contract ends in 2009. Mr. de Jong himself is reported to have indicated that he wants to end his term at PATA “on a high note.”

The committee member indicated that members would be rallying around Mr. de Jong to shield him from criticism or accountability from board members, most of whom shunned the CEO Challenge, citing its high costs and timing.

The board was told that as this was going to be a “first-time” event in a new format, there was a risk that it might not produce the desired results. “He (Mr. de Jong) covered himself well,” said the executive committee member.

The TAT has also indicated that it won’t hold PATA accountable for delivering attendance far less than what had been promised when originally asked for funding support.

In another break with tradition at PATA conferences, the media was not allowed into the main workshops, except for the official media. Only the opening ceremony and first plenary session were open. The talk-fest also ended without a single new initiative being announced.

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