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7 Apr, 2011

Breathing Life into PATA in Beijing — New Strategy to Show the Way

BEIJING — Interim PATA CEO Bill Calderwood is to unveil a strategy designed to pull the Pacific Asia Travel Association out of a years-long nosedive. To be made public at the PATA 60th anniversary conference here on April 10, the strategy is expected to be critical to the survival of what was once one of the world’s most respected travel groupings.

Mr. Calderwood, a former deputy managing director of the Australian Tourist Commission who played a key role in developing the tourism strategy for the high-profile 2000 Olympics in Sydney, was called in for a six-month stint beginning March 2011. He has a very focussed three-point agenda: deliver a successful 60th anniversary conference; facilitate the appointment of a full-time PATA CEO; and review the strategic plan and budget in conjunction with PATA’s management team and executive board in order to refine and implement it.

For five days starting 8 April, Beijing will host a series of PATA events that will seek to breathe some life into a middle-aged association. In the parlance of medical tourism, PATA is widely acknowledged to be in need of an intensive check-up, a realistic diagnosis of its ailments, and a recovery plan that may involve some bitter medicine and painful surgery. It’s either that, or the funeral pyre. For that to happen at 60 would be tragic indeed.

Mr. Calderwood’s appointment was a result of one of these ailments, but could very well turn out to be a game-changer. The executive board, now headed by the PATA Chairman, Mr. Hiran Cooray of Jetwing Hotels, Sri Lanka, sought Mr. Calderwood’s help after a months-long process to appoint a new CEO went awry. After considering a range of short-listed candidates to replace the former CEO Greg Duffell, the executive board had offered the job to Mr. Keith Beecham of VisitBritain. For reasons never publicly explained, Mr. Beecham withdrew his candidacy. With Mr. Duffell set to leave at the end of February, and the 60th anniversary conference fast approaching, the executive board had little choice except to find an interim CEO.

“Without Fear or Favour”

Mr. Calderwood’s agreement to step in could prove to be what Mr. Cooray refers to as a “God-send.” Mr Calderwood’s three-point agenda was clearly identified and agreed with the executive board. He is adamant that he will not seek any extension beyond his six-month time-frame. And he is well placed to chart out both the strategy and structure to resuscitate and revive PATA. This gives him the advantage of being able to act “without fear or favour”.

The fact that some homework had been done earlier has made his job easier. In late 2010, even as it was searching for a new CEO, the executive board had sought his input for a Strategic Planning session. In a 10-page paper presented to the Executive Board in Oct 2010, Mr. Calderwood drafted a template of questions and issues that PATA needs to address in defining its future roles and directions. Now, as interim CEO, Mr Calderwood is essentially filling in the details of a strategy for a future permanent CEO to take forward. The strategy also draws heavily upon another paper drafted by former PATA VP for Asia, Mr. Renton de Alwis, whose input had also been sought by the executive board, albeit focussed more on revamping PATA’s operational and management structure.

In a curtain-raiser interview with this editor and TTR Weekly editor Don Ross, Mr Calderwood insisted that details of the strategy would be first disclosed to the board and only then made public. However, he noted that most of it is “not rocket-science, but rather common sense” from a business perspective. Recognising the existence of a problem is usually the first step, and yes, there is a problem. PATA’s membership is down to 775, less than half what it was in its heydays in the 1990s. It has not held an annual conference for five years. It has not issued an annual report for nine years. No wonders, he says, members want to know what value they are getting for their money.

At the same time, the industry has changed, the world has changed and the generation of executives which founded and nurtured PATA is itself ageing. This makes it obvious that PATA’s survival will depend on how it can reinvent itself to become relevant and useful to the new generation of industry executives. All of them are singularly focussed on the question: “How can PATA help me grow my business”, especially in a high-tech, high-pressure era when relationships and personal camaraderie mean little.

As this pursuit of relevance has in fact been the focus of just about every past PATA CEO, Mr. Calderwood was asked why is it that an association with a board comprising of some supposedly very astute business leaders had found itself in such dire straits in the first place. Has it been ill-served by the cronyism and political grand-standing that had become legendary over the last few years? Mr Calderwood declined to be drawn into a discussion of PATA politics, describing the subject as a “waste of time.”

Reality Check

He said, “It’s only worth talking about the past if it there is some learning experience to be derived for the future, if it can yield something specific that can advance the case going forward.” He said it is understandable for any business association to have strong personalities who drive the agenda but like any organisation there is a reality check that sets in. Based on the feedback that he has received, “there is a greater acceptance of the fact that things have to change.”

Mr. Calderwood added, “People have to recognise that they are either a part of the solution or part of the problem. Are they willing to look forward and make things happen? If they are not part of the solution they have to question what their objective is. We now have a plan of action. It’s time to move from talk to action. It’s time to implement, so let’s get on with it.”

He indicated that the new strategy paper would help that process. “It will draw a line in the sand. We need to make sure that it is so clearly defined that people don’t lose sight of it. All through my career, I have tried to make sure that decisions are made on the basis of a strategy. There is no value in looking at the past. We have to recognise where we are at this point in time, where we want to go, and we should get on with it.”

The first crack at reviving PATA will come on April 8 when the chapters meet. These chapters once represented the grassroots membership base of PATA. According to PATA, they played a major role in the 70’s and 80’s, becoming “one of Asia Pacific’s most influential travel distribution systems, with the ability to round up major buyers of regional travel and tourism product in all the critical source markets of the world. Many National Tourism Organisations (NTOs) and industry leaders capitalised on this unique promotional outlet, particularly in Europe and the Americas where the Chapters frequently supported and co-hosted destination road shows and other marketing initiatives.”

Policy Backfired

In 1997, the PATA Chapter network had grown to 100 Chapters on five continents. Today, it is down to 38 chapters. Although PATA claims that the chapters’ role was “eroded and usurped by more powerful industry and consumer direct channels – the internet,” PATA’s former management team and executive committee had deliberately tried to pare down the chapter network via a fee structure designed to convert PATA into a “rich man’s club.” That policy, like many others, backfired big-time. It is now being expeditiously reversed.

Said an official PATA release, “At the Beijing Conference, we will hold a chapter colloquium and announce further initiatives to increase the cooperation and partnership between our global chapter network and the PATA Head Office, and reinforce the importance of chapters in our future plans, and the distinct competitive advantage which it provides to our network through the extensive reach of our global network.”

That will be followed by two days of internal management meetings, the various councils, the advisory and board meetings, concluding with two days of the annual conference. Mr. Calderwood said about 900 people are expected at the opening ceremony. In spite of the phenomenal help from China, and all the sponsorship support, the entire event is expected to only break even. That in itself is a far cry from the PATA heydays when the conference was its third largest revenue source after membership and revenues from the Travel Mart.

Indeed Mr. Calderwood said this might also be the last conference of its kind. Like everything else in PATA, the way the conference is run and operated is under review. Said Mr. Calderwood, “I would rather that we focus our efforts on forums that deliver real, practical goals, which are more targeted and specific rather than broad-based, and far more relevant for the members.”

In the past, PATA’s traditional petty politics would have heated up at just the whiff of such a suggestion. Mr. Calderwood indicated he was above that. “I don’t have to protect my case going forward. I am in the unique position of being able to act without fear or favour. That is certainly an opportunity for the organisation. I don’t have to temper those recommendations for fear of impacting on me personally as an employee.”

He concluded, “Beijing is a good opportunity to get across to a wide ranging part of the membership and the wider industry that PATA is evolving in the way it is doing business. Beijing is a good vehicle to give people a good understanding on the focus and relevance going forward. It’s going to be a very busy six days of honest discussions, assessments, recommitment and refocus. If I can see it through, I will be a very happy man.”

Read Don Ross’ article on the upcoming PATA conference here.

Read flashback article written specially for Travel Impact Newswire by Bill Calderwood upon his departure from the Australian Tourist Commission in 2001.