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25 Jul, 2011

PATA Bids to be “Voice” of Asian Travel, But “Face” Remains Non-Asian

BANGKOK – The Pacific Asia Travel Association last week advanced its recovery and rehabilitation campaign by appointing two senior-management executives to help revive its profile in the Asian region and rebuild its membership base.

But the appointment of two Thailand-based expatriates, Stu Lloyd as Senior Director – Marketing and Membership Services and Reid Ridgway as Regional Director – Asia, has done little to enhance the organisation’s over-arching objective to position itself as the “voice of Asia-Pacific travel & tourism”.

Although the organisation, under the temporary stewardship of Interim CEO Bill Calderwood, a former Deputy MD of the Australian Tourist Commission and key strategist of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, recently has taken two steps forward by unveiling  a grand strategy to address its many internal and external challenges, it has taken one step backward by not filling even one of the two positions with a born-and-bred Asian.

In a thriving Asian region of four billion people, an organisation of members spread across the Asia-Pacific and responsible for guiding the fortunes of a resurging travel & tourism sector could not find two Asians qualified enough to fill two senior positions.

A press release announcing the appointments sought to underpin the appointees’ Asian credentials. Both have spent several years of their professional life in Thailand and worked extensively in multi-cultural backgrounds with multinational companies and regional governments. In addition, both are reportedly able to speak Thai. Mr Ridgway is married to a Thai and Mr Lloyd has a Thai partner.

Mr Calderwood said they were chosen purely on the basis of their perceived ability to deliver results and help PATA members build their businesses, now set in stone as the rallying-cry for all of PATA’s future projects and activities.

He said, “Our desire was to identify the best candidates regardless of their gender, or cultural background. The criteria which we set was looking at their skills, experience and ability to do the job. That approach is what I would believe our members would expect of us.”

But in a world where perception is often more important than reality, the new appointments have only heightened the long-standing membership perception of PATA as an organisation that has been top-heavy with Western expatriates, especially since moving to Thailand from its former HQ in San Francisco in 1998.

Some of these expatriates were responsible for the mess that nearly put PATA out of business two years ago, which they tried unsuccessfully to cover up. In its entire 60-year lifespan, PATA has had only one Asian CEO, Lakshman Ratnapala, who hailed from Sri Lanka.

Given this history, it would have seemed obvious for PATA to have sourced the best Asian talent, in order to give it a more prominent Asian face, especially in view of Asia’s growing influence on the world stage. Countries such as India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Korea abound with well-educated, well-experienced travel industry executives fluent in several languages.

Mr Calderwood rebutted suggestions that local expatriates had been chosen because they both had work-permits and could seamlessly take up their new jobs, without incurring any additional moving costs.

He challenged a question about whether PATA was seen as a place worth working in. “The applicants came from across the globe, Asia, Europe, USA, Pacific and the quality overall demonstrated to me that the level of interest in working for the organisation is good.”

He also took exception to a question about whether interviews of the short-listed candidates, conducted by him and Mr Kevin Murphy, a Bangkok-based hotel consultant and member of the PATA executive board, had led to the final choice being culturally skewed in favour of expatriates.

“Are you really suggesting that they should have been automatically eliminated because they were farang?” Mr Calderwood shot back. “To suggest a bias is unfortunate and untrue, and personally offensive. Both Kevin and myself are very experienced executives who have worked and run global operations involving staff from many cultures and backgrounds, especially Asia. We brought to the process an extensive degree of professionalism and experience which has never been questioned before.”

The two appointees are due to start work in August. In addition to dealing with a highly political membership and proving PATA’s relevance in a rapidly-changing industry, they will soon be dealing with a new permanent CEO to replace Mr Calderwood at the end of his temporary assignment in November.

This job is now being sourced with the help of a head-hunter. An announcement is expected by the PATA Travel Mart in New Delhi this September, with a formal handover two months later.