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9 Feb, 2009

New PATA Chief Outlines Future Roadmap

(TTR Weekly Editor Don Ross contributed to this report)

The Pacific Asia Travel Association has dumped its much-hyped CEO Challenge conference as part of a sweeping revamp of internal and external activities being enacted by President and CEO Greg Duffell following his official takeover last week.

It’s a tough year for holding events,” Mr Duffell said in an exclusive interview last week, his first since assuming office. He indicated that the CEO Challenge would again over-stretch PATA’s staff and financial resources at a time when PATA can ill afford it.

Although the official announcement quoted PATA chairman Janice Antonson as hailing the first CEO Challenge in Bangkok in April 2008 as an “outstanding success”, the event failed to meet both income and attendance targets. To resurrect it again this year would have been a monumental undertaking.

Mr Duffell, who replaced former President & CEO Peter de Jong, made it clear that he had other more important “challenges” to deal with, such as revamping the membership structure, accounting systems, internal management procedures and sources of financial revenue.

After spending a lot of time working the phone to members about what they expect from PATA even before assuming office, Mr Duffell has spent his first days in office talking to the staff to understand what they do and ask what they feel needs to be done to put PATA back on its feet.

Recent meetings with the regional directors have focussed on five themes: 1) Improving internal housekeeping and establishing a clear vision and future strategy; 2) Improving the quality of the website as a trading portal; 3) Boosting the quality of communications; 4) Revamping the membership and fee structure; and 5) Developing the China market.

He said he wants to diversify and better balance revenue streams, move away from over-dependence on membership fees and the PATA travel mart and more towards alternatives such as offering consultancy services that leverage the association’s vast statistical and knowledge base.

He said that at a time when the industry is facing a bleak business conditions overall, a top priority would be to create systemwide networking opportunities for members such as via events like the PATA travel mart and the PATA website itself.

Mr Duffell said an ideal income target would be an equal one-third split between membership, events and other activities such as the consultancy services. Members will also benefit by having the opportunity to be included on the database list of consultants.

He said PATA would need to bring in members from outside the industry. “For example, we don’t have any insurance members but every travel agent sells insurance. We don’t have any members amongst the banking and finance community, yet they fund every hotel that’s built.”

He said it is important to bridge the gap between the chapter members and the head-office members. “We have to tell all the members, ‘We are here to serve you. We have limited resources and we can’t give you everything you want but we can give you the opportunities to network and do business’.”

In turn, he said, chapters would become the greatest sources of membership sales just like the member-bring-member strategy of the credit card companies.

Mr Duffell said the entire accounting process would undergo “a big revamp” to make it more timely and efficient. “We are not a big organisation. Yet it takes months and months to come up with financial statements whereas it should take only days.”

Also facing a revamp is the size, composition and responsibilities of the board of directors, executive committee and the numerous other committees. This would involve making them more productive and removing all avenues for fostering cronyism.

Many of the planned changes are to be tabled at the upcoming annual general meeting and business forum this April in Macau. Mr Duffell said it would be a “watershed” event for PATA and membership at large.

He said that China would be a major focus of attention, especially in view of Hangzhou being host of this year’s PATA mart. “When the rest of the world gets better (from the prevailing financial crisis), China is going to be right on top of that.

Asked how he intended to follow up his earlier comments about Asia Pacific countries issuing tit-for-tat travel advisories against those from the industrialised countries, Mr Duffell said there was a lot of confusion between travel advisories, warnings and alerts, each of which risk ed misrepresenting the real situation.

He said tourist-generating countries could issue whatever warnings they wish but the ultimate responsibility for ensuring safety of visitors and guests lay with the host countries “who surely know the situation best” and should issue their own counter-advisories.

PATA can then act as a conduit for directing members and travellers to these counter-advisories so that the travellers can make up their own minds,” he said. “That would be within our purview to be the ‘voice’ of the Asia-Pacific travel industry and provide a tangible benefit for members.”

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