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9 Apr, 2011

Energetic Show of PATA “People Power” at Chapters Colloquium

BEIJING: The passion and power of the people of PATA were on full display at the April 8 PATA Chapters Colloquium, the first event of the 60th anniversary conference of the Asia Pacific region’s leading travel association.


(Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil was the only travel industry journalist at this important forum.)

BEIJING — The passion and power of the people of PATA were on full display at the April 8 PATA Chapters Colloquium, the first event of the 60th anniversary conference of the Asia Pacific region’s leading travel association. Representatives of several chapters swapped success stories of how they are leveraging the PATA brand-name to promote the industry’s interests, as well as their own. The fact that this reservoir of goodwill and commitment exists means that the PATA flame is still flickering. To fire it up again will have to be an intrinsic part of the turnaround process.

The frank discussion contained some important pointers for PATA as it ponders its future over the critical conference period of April 9-12. The outpouring of creativity and ideas was an incisive expression of the voice of the grassroots PATA membership. When the former PATA management between 2001-2008 tried to gut the membership by converting PATA into a rich man’s club, it stifled this voice and deprived the association of its credibility and respect. PATA’s repeated restructuring and re-engineering over the years has been driven largely by a mistaken belief that those who sit on its councils and boards are the ones best placed to make decisions. Today, those at the top are realising that when the bottom crumbles, the top follows.

No wonder that PATA Chairman Hiran Cooray, in his first words to the colloquium of 22 chapters gathered at the Traders Hotel in Beijing, described April 8 as “the most important day of (the 60th anniversary) PATA conference”. He called the chapters the “lifeblood of PATA” and said the association is now going back to them, and seeking ways to bring them back into the fold.

Interim CEO Bill Calderwood noted that PATA was an organisation in search of a competitive advantage. The ability to network, especially through the chapters, is a major unique selling proposition, he said, “one that we have not maximised to its fullest extent in recent years.” He added, “We are seeing a resurging groundswell of interest through the chapter network. There is now clear recognition of the need to see an enhanced role of chapters in promoting two-way inbound-outbound travel, developing destination management plans and improving communications, especially in periods of crisis.” He said chapters were uniquely placed to drive business for all members and, given the proper incentives, recruit more members. “Rebuilding, reinvigorating and stimulating” one of PATA’s most important competitive advantages is to be a major part of his six-month agenda, Mr. Calderwood said.

PATA’s Director of Chapters Ms Benjakalayani (Ben) Montgomery said PATA now has 38 chapters; 11 in North America, 9 in Europe. 4 in East Asia, 6 South Asia, 7 in Southeast Asia and one in the Pacific. She highlighted the efforts made to make it easier for chapters to be set up, elect committees and undertake activities. She clarified the rules for usage of the logos, flagged the establishment of the chapter database and plans to start new chapters in Beijing, Cambodia and Chiang Rai (Thailand). A revival of the PATA Hong Kong chapter was also in the works.

In the presentations and discussions that followed, chapter members outlined their commitment to PATA and how it is being leveraged to drive business, upgrade industry standards or otherwise make a difference. The passion was unmistakable.

PATA UK CHAPTER: Ian Hawkes of the PATA UK chapter said it would be marking its 50th anniversary in 2012. Comprised largely of suppliers (the sellers) and the travel agents (the buyers), the chapter for many years held its meetings and activities in a business-cum-pleasure format. As times changed, so did the people and the processes. Membership of agents dwindled to barely 50, leading to a commensurate decline in interest by the suppliers.

Said Mr. Hawkes, “We weren’t relevant anymore. We needed to reinvigorate ourselves. We needed to create a good business case for survival.” This was based on the simple question: “How can we increase membership value and provide real business benefits for members?”

As the UK remained a major outbound market for PATA destinations, and travel agents still played an important role in the distribution change, an idea emerged to create an Asia-Pacific Travel Partner (APTP) programme — and give the travel agents membership FREE OF CHARGE. However, as with most good ideas, that initially was considered absurd.

But, said Mr. Hawkes, “after we finished falling off chairs laughing, we said ‘let’s have a closer look at it.’ If we could increase number of agents, we would provide much better business benefits for suppliers but would lose membership of revenues.” Once having accepted that tradeoff, it was decided to go ahead with it.

The results: Agents’ membership surged from 50 to 1,000 in 12 months, including high street agents, home workers and consortiums, the key target markets in the UK travel distribution structure. APTP was launched as a separate unit of the UK chapter, with its own identity and logo. Member agents get free newsletters packed with promotional information by the suppliers, access to social events and industry experts and the latest venture, an online academy.

Although the risk paid off, the suppliers paid by having to incur a one-third dues increase. In return, however, they get a much wider captive audience. All the information is on a website, which the members themselves can update. In 2010, a new “Taste of PATA” event was created, backed by the various tourist boards who provide their national food and drink. Appreciated by the agents, it has been held in London and is due to follow in Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle.

SINGAPORE CHAPTER: With only 85 members, the much smaller chapter is pretty much guided by two pillars – relevance and balance. Mr. Wong Soon Hwa, the chapter vice chairman, said PATA HQ is “having a tough time in trying to be all things to all chapters at the global level so we have to try and be relevant at the local level. Let us face that fact that members pay dues and expect benefits. As chapters exists only for members, so we have to do the right things for them. The chapter will only do well only if industry at large is doing well. So we have to think beyond chapters and PATA and look at other stakeholders in the industry.”

Because island-state Singapore faces a perennial labour crunch, competition for the small pool of qualified manpower is high. So the chapter set out to attract young people to study in travel & tourism academies and then move into the industry itself. But not just any young people. Through seminars called “The Future Is Yours,” the chapter targetted the hundreds of military conscripts emerging into the work-force following their two-year compulsory conscription. The seminars were designed to get them interested in finding a career in travel & tourism. A Member of Parliament was invited to open them. That usually helps, Mr Wong said. “These MPs are funded by taxpayers money. We make them work for it. If the MPs show up, the conscripts also show up.”

THAILAND CHAPTER: The Thailand chapter showed how it tries to support the industry by working with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The dictum is not what the TAT can do for PATA but what the PATA chapter can do for the TAT. Chapter Chairman Bert van Walbeek said one of the objectives is to find ways for the chapter to become a conduit for promoting unity and “togetherness” in a highly-fractured and divided sector. Hence, the chapter is working with the TAT Governor to become part of his agenda to promote sustainability, enhance the Thai brand image, boost digital marketing and help with crisis management.

Round-table discussions have been initiated with industry leaders to debate Thailand’s tourism future and the need to initiate policy-making activities that shape, directly and indirectly, tourism development, investment, promotion, marketing, infrastructure and visitation! A seminar on “Mapping the Future” is to be held on May 19. Coming up next is the creation a Tourist Satisfaction Index, which would be the first of its kind in Thailand.

HAWAII CHAPTER: In Hawaii, the PATA chapter set up a satellite chapter in 1994 to bring in students from the School of Travel Industry Management. It claims to be the first model of its kind “to get students involved at reduced fees, encourage interaction between the students and industry professionals, and to develop students’ interests in PATA early in their careers.” Indeed, the Hawaii chapter is also claimed to be the only in the world where both mother and daughter sit on the executive committee – Muriel Anderson, 67, and Kawehi Sellers, 36.

“Without young leadership, it be would be irrelevant,” said student chapter advisor Rachel Soma. The satellite chapter now has 86 student members. “The PATA TIMS satellite chapter provides TIM students with invaluable insights to the travel industry. Students have the opportunities to participate in meetings and conferences, undertake educational/cultural experiences and network with both peers in school and professionals.” They can also sit in on PATA’s high-powered EDIT executive development programme sessions.

Said Ms Soma, “It motivates me when I see members excited about visiting a tourism property that they have never been to before. Through our events, they create long lasting friendships with each other while enhancing their University learning experience.”

A number of other chapters also highlighted their projects and initiatives. Director of Macau Government Tourist Office, João Manuel Costa Antunes, the PATA Vice-Chairman, described himself as a “PATA addict” who has leveraged his PATA membership to gain huge benefits for Macau. He said the Macau chapter members are given subsidies to participate in events such as the PATA conference and Travel Mart, in order to expand the Macau presence at these events. He said reports by past PATA task forces had helped build a stronger case for preserving Macau’s heritage and expanding the Macau airport. Said Mr Antunes, “The industry understands that they can get a big benefit from what PATA can offer to them.”

Other chapter members at the colloquium included Hanna-Leena Halsas of the Finland chapter. Mrs Halsas works for Singapore Airlines which does not even fly to Finland. Yet, there she is, pushing business to a PATA-based airline, even an offline one. Chapter members were also told how they could work amongst each other – for example, the India chapter draws upon the help of the UK chapter to do roadshows through London, Manchester, Glasgow, Dublin and Birmingham.

The chapters then heard from PATA’s Deputy MD and Head of the Strategic Intelligence Centre (SIC) Mr. John Koldowski who said he would like to correct the title of his talk. On the programme, the title was: “What PATA SIC can do for the chapters” whereas, Mr Koldowski said, it should really be “What PATA SIC can do together with the Chapters.” He said the word “for” is no longer valid and that “new thinking” now required both the SIC and the chapters to be working together – in other words, no more one-way but a two-way relationship.

Admitting that “a lot of trends and issues occur at the level where you (the chapters) see it first,” Mr. Koldowski said, “we need to understand with a little more depth what is going on out there.” He said that if the chapters can provide the HQ with information on what’s going on at the country level, “we can act as an aggregator, analyse it, place it into context and give it back to you so that you can then send it back to your members.”

He noted that PATA produces these voluminous forecasts of travel to countries and is now in a position to break that data down into smaller bits with a focus on cities and provinces. Hence, the Singapore chapter, for example, could take the broken down information, put it into a broader Southeast Asia context, place its own chapter brand on it and distribute it, perhaps even sell it to members. Said Mr. Koldowski, “We are sitting on a ton of material like this. We have never leveraged it in a way that the chapters can find utility from. So in a sense you can drive part of your research agenda. Having the data is well and good, doing it something with it is something totally different.”

After all these rah-rah discussions, however, the chapters hit a reality check and returned to the same haunting issue that has decimated the membership – how to manage the membership fee structure and reconcile the different payment schemes between the chapters and the PATA HQ. In both the main sessions and the brainstorming breakouts, the subject triggered extensive discussion but no answers. While there was general agreement that there could never be a one-size-fits-all pricing structure, the creation of a tailor-made structure that would link membership services to benefits remained elusive.

The debate was not without its fiery moments.

Said Mr. Antunes, “Unless we can fast discover a ‘rich aunty’ who can be a member of PATA, and finance its costs, we should be very cautious when we talk of exemption of payments for anyone or even the payments of full members or chapter members. Sometimes it is difficult (for some members) to understand why they need to pay. Ok, I can understand that. But we also need to differentiate between who is a full member or chapter member. Otherwise we lose. I don’t agree that the full members shouldn’t pay the chapter dues. No. They must pay.”

David Stone of the Philippines chapter also noted the differences amongst the chapters and the huge differences in dues paid by the chapter members as against HQ members. In the Philippines, he said, chapter members pay less than 100 dollars a year. “It is very very difficult to have broad-brush approach. We have to move beyond that. Maybe the time is approaching when being a full member and first and second class member becomes a thing of the past.”

That would require finding ways to finance PATA’s own administration costs. Added Mr. Stone, “The unspoken subject is how to finance the costs of the mother organisation, and that is where the leadership, lateral thinking and creativity has to come in. To get the chapters to fend for themselves is not an ideal situation. The solution has to come from the top. It’s time for them (the PATA HQ) to get off their butts and find a solution.”

Later, Mr. Calderwood acknowledged, “There is still a level of ambiguity no question.” He added that he hoped to have this core issue sorted out during his brief tenure, as part of a clear commitment to enhance the role of the chapters as a critical part of the organisation.

If that happens, the top-down era will be tempered by an equally powerful bottoms-up approach. Only then will the PATA ship return to even keel.