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6 Jul, 2011

PATA, In Comeback Mode, Plans Industry Forums In 12 Global Cities

BANGKOK – In a bold move designed to boost its membership appeal and raise its international profile, the Pacific Asia Travel Association plans to hold strategic industry forums in 12 global cities. One of several rabbit-out-of-a-hat initiatives planned as part of its comeback effort, PATA has identified Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Bangkok, Beijing/Shanghai, Frankfurt, London, New York, Vancouver and Dubai/Abu Dhabi. All are key global travel hubs, where a critical mass of major operators exist who either are PATA members or have the potential to join.

At least three of the forums are planned for this year, if the requisite funding and arrangements can be put into place, Interim CEO Bill Calderwood said. The topics will cover key issues, market segments or research that are of most interest to the members in their specific location, and most importantly, help them build their business.

To be formally unveiled at the PATA Travel Mart in New Delhi this September, the initiative is intended to highlight a “new, improved” PATA after two years of uncertainty about its future. Mr Calderwood, a former deputy managing director of the Australian Tourist Commission, who played a major part in developing the marketing strategy for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, was called in to help revive and reinvent an organisation that many had written off.

Sense of Urgency

Since taking up a temporary assignment in February, Mr Calderwood has been working on a recovery plan that is designed around establishing PATA’s relevance in an era of swirling global and industry change, stemming and reversing a membership attrition by delivering appropriate products and services, and ensuring that PATA has the financial and human resources to follow through. He says PATA’s future focus and survival will revolve entirely around helping members build their business.

Mr Calderwood admits there is a sense of urgency. PATA members are down to only 755 as of April 2011, less than half in its heyday. Key members are aware of the recovery plans under way, but there IS a wait-and-see attitude. Plans, like talk, are cheap. Delivering on them is the crucial part.

Says Mr Calderwood, “I have spoken to a lot of other executives running associations. They all tell me the same story. Every member in today’s current climate, doesn’t matter what size, they are all reviewing the RoI from their membership. PATA is no different. What strikes me is the similarity of the challenges we face. There is a need for us to deliver relevance, focus, prove why we are competitive, how we can help members build the business and how to provide these services in ways that are more than words. That’s not an overnight fix. It’s a process.”

Mr Calderwood said the 12-city forum plan is one part of what a five-point “Strategic Link” project that will identify key strategies or barriers to helping members build their business. All PATA events, research and marketing communications activities will be decided and implemented on that basis. It will also help “link” all the “silos” that had emerged within PATA. Mr Calderwood said there were quite a few reasons why these “silos” had emerged but he did not want to discuss them. Now, he says, he is seeing an increased willingness amongst the teams to come together as one with one voice, one message.

This will also help address the “convoluted and confused messages” emerging from PATA in the past. “The consistent question I got about PATA is ‘what are you doing’ and ‘why are you different.’ If members understand what we are doing, they can extract better value from it. They can understand which part works for them. I have had many members coming up and saying they want this or that service, and this works for them while other part may not be relevant. I want them to understand the range of services we can offer and break it down into small components so they can understand where it fits with their business and how it could be relevant to them.”

Reminded that just about every previous CEO had tried to do exactly that, Mr Calderwood said “I have never claimed this is new thinking but it’s not rocket science. My job is to make it easy to understand and simple to grasp, remember, relate to and then make sure we deliver on those promises.”

Bigger Opportunity

One objective is to help PATA members link with each other in a different way. For example, the association has a number of hotel chains as members. While these may add up to only a handful of members on the books, the fact that each chain has thousands of staff that other members may want to reach gives their membership a new value. Said Mr Calderwood, “So, here is a bigger opportunity that we have not grasped before. Some of the members are seeing this. They are asking how they can reach these people. That’s one part of building the business.”

Some changes will be made at the PATA events around the Travel Mart in New Delhi. For example, PATA has a number of committees that are divided sectorally – airlines, governments and an “industry council”. They meet twice a year and do little more than preach to the converted. This does not make sense, said Mr Calderwood. “We claim that one of our competitive advantages is that we have cross-sectoral membership and we can get input from that but we rarely allow the members from different sectors to discuss each other’s issues. This will be changed.”

In addition three new committees will be created to focus on key global issues which will be identified based on the results of a survey that PATA conducted on 29 June. Asked how members will be named to these committees, Mr Calderwood said he envisaged a process whereby members can nominate themselves with probably the CEO responsible for the final selection.

One result of the wait-and-see attitude amongst members is that many have not paid their dues. Mr Calderwood said that after the new, improved PATA is unveiled, there will be some house-cleaning of unpaid dues. Incentives will be offered for early sign-ups, penalties for late sign-ups, a grace period, then membership suspension and eventually cancellation. “It will be a clear, transparent process,” Mr Calderwood said.

The 12-city forums may help strengthen the PATA presence in those cities and lead to some restructuring of the PATA chapters network. Located in many countries, chapters were once considered the strength of PATA but their numbers have dwindled. Mr Calderwood said he hopes to revive the number to about 50 by the end of 2011. However, as all the chapters are different, the new direction will be to focus on their strengths. This could mean the creation of student chapters, or others based specifically on inbound or outbound.

It has also been decided to keep the PATA Mart rotating among Asia-Pacific destinations. Mr Calderwood said members see the value of destinations getting exposure, especially smaller products and services which may not otherwise be able to afford the cost. Manila is confirmed as host of the 2012 Mart and strong expressions of interest have been received from one city for 2013.

To encourage other destinations to bid, the qualifying criteria and conditions for them to host it will be lowered, thus helping them to generate a higher rate of return on their investment and also give smaller destinations a chance. Although some hosting facilities will be a must, such as for the buyers, more efforts will be made to screen buyers. This year, the entire list of hosted buyers has been sent to the PATA India chapter for whetting.

Team Performance

Mr Calderwood said the PATA Task Forces would also be cranked up, which would allow destinations to get some free advice from PATA, especially its senior members seeking to pass on their expertise and experience to future generations.

The success of all this will depend on how well the PATA team performs. “We’ve got many projects in the pipeline, but we don’t have the arms and legs needed to follow through.” Three key positions are waiting to be filled: director of marketing and membership, regional director for Asia and a full-time CEO. Interviews for the first two have been completed and the preferred candidates are expected to be offered jobs by mid-July and perhaps take up their jobs by the PATA Travel Mart.

He said PATA received about 70 applications from Europe, North America, Australia and Asia. The shortlisted candidates were interviewed, some of them via Skype, to judge their ability to respond to specific situations as well as their skills to communicate, persuade and garner ideas.

He was assisted in the process by Mr Kevin Murphy, a hotel industry consultant based in Bangkok, who is also a member of the PATA executive board. Asked why Mr Murphy was involved, Mr Calderwood said he had wanted to bring at least one more member into the interview process and Mr Murphy happened to be the best person from both a cost and time perspective. He said Mr Murphy will not be involved in selection of the new CEO. Last year, Mr Murphy himself had applied for the PATA CEO’s job and was one of shortlisted applicants. As of 28 June, when this interview was conducted, Mr Calderwood said he was not aware if Mr Murphy had again applied for the job.

Crucial Position

Applications for the CEO’s job closed on 30 June and are being whetted by a headhunter. Mr Calderwood said he would  look at them after the director-level jobs are close to finalisation. This position will be crucial to PATA’s future. “I think there is a responsibility on the part of the organisation to find an individual with the experience and strength of character to remain focussed on the strategy and handle the pressure.” At the same time, he said, “the management and board members owe it to that individual to provide the necessary support and environment to help him or her get on with the job.”

Every effort has been made to avoid the position being influenced by external political or lobbying efforts. “I wasn’t involved in the last process. But I wanted to learn from the past experience so that we don’t go down the same road again. That’s very much why we implemented a very strict and disciplined selection process, which is driven in a different way, by using an external agency. This helps us avoid any potential pitfalls and also, if you like, there is less potential for pressure to be applied or lobbying for different candidates.”

The final decision will be made between the headhunter, PATA chairman Hiran Cooray, Vice Chairman Joao Manuel Costa Antunes and Mr Calderwood. An offer is expected to be made by September in order to have the new CEO in place by the World Travel market in November.

Although he was due to wrap-up his assignment at the end of September, Mr Calderwood has been asked to stay on for another two months to ensure a seamless handover to the new executives. This will help them hit the ground running. Said Mr Calderwood: “Members are looking for action. There is a sense of urgency. They don’t want to see a hiatus. They want to see the momentum continue.”

Asked if the arrival of new people may lead to some attrition among existing staff, Mr Calderwood said, “This will become apparent when the new team is in place and when we start moving hard on some of the new programmes. If we find that people within are not capable of making the adjustment, that’s when we will have to make the call. At the moment, the feedback I have is that they are capable of making that adjustment. We need to give them that chance. I have spoken to the team and asked whether they want to be part of the new directions. I told them it will require them to do business in a different way. Most of them have signed on.” He said that the Deputy CEO and Head of Marketing Services, Ms Sheila Leong, who had been reportedly ready to leave, had decided to stay on.

Outsourcing

Asked about the communications director’s job, which has been outsourced temporarily, Mr Calderwood said the new director of membership and marketing would make the final decision on that. At the same time, he said, PATA needs to outsource a number of other functions. “We have to be realistic. We cannot have the luxury of having a full time manager for every activity. Sometimes, outsourcing can be a good solution, not only in terms of costs. We need to look at outsourcing more. We may even do that for internal roles so that it becomes more ‘project management’ than ‘production line’. There are a lot of good people out there that we presently use and others whom we have not even identified.”

He said the budget he has proposed for 2012 is “in a holding pattern,” balanced with a zero bottom-line. The new plan, new internal structure, new programs and research priorities will be formally unveiled at the PATA Travel Mart. Then, people will start to connect the dots about how it works together. Once the recognition comes, the support will follow, he says.

At that stage, communications will be critical. “I don’t believe membership should only hear from you when you want money. We should communicate as frequently as possible — without becoming a pain in the neck — about what we are doing. People are saying ‘we like what you are doing but just make sure you deliver.’ I say ‘of course but I need you to understand that this is work in progress’.” He said even the Singapore Tourism Board, which had been on the verge of pulling out had decided to stay on for the moment. “I told them that you will see a different face of PATA.”

Asked about calls for the PATA HQ to be moved out of Bangkok, Mr Calderwood said, “That is not on my agenda. It is simply not realistic. It is not a priority for me.” However, he acknowledged that the first question the new CEO would pose to PATA would be the ease of getting a Thai work permit, an issue with which the former CEO Mr Greg Duffell had months of problems. Asked how he expected this to be sorted out, Mr Calderwood said it’s being worked on. He declined further comment. “It will be a sad day for Thailand if PATA has to be relocated for issues of this kind.”

  • My late father, Jim Wanigatunga won the award for “Pioneer of the Pacific”. PATA started off with lofty goals of bringing people together with the common interest of promoting travel and supporting each other in the PATA family. However, a few took charge and only a few benefited. For PATA to survive they must offer value for membership. In the past the conferences were a great meeting place to work towards mutual benefit. Although times have changed, perhaps we can emulate some of the winning strategies. Good luck PATA!