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2 Oct, 2012

PATA’s Future Challenges: Empower, mPOWER and People Power

Manila – When Mr. Runeep Sangha, 57, a former senior executive of American Express, Citibank and Lionel India Ltd, took over as Executive Director of the PATA India Chapter last August 1, he decided to take a simple step to better understand the members’ “wants and needs”: Just ask them. Soon, the roughly 240 chapter members will receive a questionnaire that will help Mr. Sangha design a business plan. “It’s not rocket science,” he told this editor at the PATA Chapters Colloquium in Manila. “I needed a sense of direction and the simplest thing was to seek the members’ help. Then we can plan ahead and allocate resources accordingly.”

News of the upcoming questionnaire was unveiled by India Chapter Chairman Vikram Madhok. Asked when the Chapter had last conducted such a questionnaire, he said he thought it was the first time. Asked why, he replied: “Perhaps complacency. They didn’t feel they need to do it.” Mr. Madhok said it would be a struggle to get the members to respond because “no-one has time to fill out questionnaires.” That same problem was faced by the PATA Thailand chapter when it sent out a questionnaire more than a year ago. According to chapter chairman Bert van Walbeek, “We pushed it very hard. We even put it online. But we got only two or three responses.”

As was again obvious from the various discussions and developments at the Sept 26-29 PATA Travel Mart and various other PATA events in Manila, that comment goes to the heart of the challenge facing PATA. Although PATA hands out questionnaires at the end of all key events, it does not regularly monitor the pulse of its worldwide members to assess their wants and needs. Complacency and a “we know what we are doing” attitude has been a problem.

Regain Lost Status

If the Indian questionnaire yields positive results, similar exercises conducted across all chapters worldwide could provide enough feedback to help build a PATA-wide programme that is bottom-up rather than top-down. It could help PATA regain its lost status as “the voice” of Asia-Pacific tourism and develop a strong and realistic advocacy agenda. Both are part of the “rebuilding-PATA” mission objectives outlined by CEO Martin Craigs as he approaches the end of his first year in office.

Small back-to-basics steps to re-empower its members are emerging in PATA as it strives to revamp its business model and reverse mounting losses. Hit by dwindling membership, due to a combination of external and internal factors, the association reported losses of US$412,145 in 2010 and US$512,781 in 2011. It was initially projecting a surplus of US$101,000 in 2012 but is now forecasting a deficit of US$150,000, the third losing year in a row.

Unexpected external factors are not helping. A geopolitical development, the China-Philippines row over a disputed island in the South China Sea, led the Chinese to scale down their presence at the PATA Mart to only one token representative, the China National Tourism Administration, just four buyers and a few academics. Although PATA’s Chief Operating Officer Sheila Leong salvaged the situation somewhat, and the Philippines Tourism Department stepped up in with last-minute financial help, the mart’s bottom-line had to be reforecast. How this impact on the final figures for the year remains to be seen.

Struggling to cope with these uncertainties and complexities, Mr. Craigs three-pronged platform to retain the remaining members and bring in new ones is strong advocacy, innovative events and better quality of research and intelligence. A key component of the intelligence agenda is mPOWER, the new one-stop shop for those wishing to cut through the headache of handling the data deluge. Alex Rayner, who is working in a consultancy capacity pending formal appointment as PATA’s chief marketing officer, is attempting to persuade PATA’s top-paying members, mainly the government tourist offices and airlines to subscribe to the suite of statistics that will help them make better quality decisions on everything from policies to product development.

mPOWER is a great product, but costly and complex to maintain, update and market. In his presentation at the Governments/Destinations committee, Mr. Rayner said the subscription fee would range from US$35,000 to US$95,000 a year depending on the category and duration of subscription. After asking the usual technical questions, PATA Chairman Joao Antunes, speaking in his capacity as Director of the Macau Tourism Promotion Board, conducted a dipstick survey of the members seated at the table to establish what they would be willing to pay. About 12 members penned a figure which was averaged and announced by Mr. Antunes: US$11,500 a year. He added, “It looks like PATA will have to work harder at marketing the value proposition of the product.”

Thrilla in Manila

While mPOWER will be costly and targeted at the upper-echelon industry “captains”, PATA grabbed one cost-free opportunity to empower the “troops” – students, the future industry captains. Mr. Craigs became the first PATA CEO in 61 years to convene a proper debate. Marketed as the “Thrilla in Manila,” the debate was conducted with Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil at the Lyceum of Philippines University on the topic “The Future of Travel & Tourism in the New World Order – What’s Hot and What’s Not.”

Muqbil argued that everything was “hot”; in a world in which travel & tourism jobs are being hit by ecological, economic and geopolitical forces, the industry, especially in Asia, had to raise the level of its game and start debating these issues. Mr. Craigs counter-argued that the time was not right for the industry to take positions, and that Asia still had some way to go in terms of development progress before it reached that stage.

Mr. Craigs and his debating partner won the debate hands-down, thrashing Muqbil and his partner by a voting margin of almost 10 to 1. However, a number of university professors and PATA members said they thought Muqbil’s argument went over the students’ heads but they enjoyed the intellectual duel, the alternative perspective and food for thought. PATA’s Vice Chairman Rick Antonson recalled that in its heydays, PATA’s AGMs had provided a platform for healthy democratic debate on many contentious internal issues, for example, the HQ relocation from San Francisco to Asia. He said such debates on pressing industry issues should continue.

Commented Muqbil: “That is precisely what I wanted to see happen. I may have lost the battle but I won the war.” Muqbil’s main thought-prompting challenge to PATA, which he posed in his debating remarks, was: Why did it take 61 years to hold PATA’s first proper debate? Although he could not answer that question, Mr. Craigs can take credit for breaking that taboo.

Statement of peace

Realpolitik, however, may force Mr. Craigs’ hand. In the local TTG PATA Mart show daily, he was quoted as saying that nothing could be done about the Philippines-China dispute. One NTO disagreed. During the Governments/Destinations Committee meeting, Mr. Lee Jaekyong, Senior VP of the Korean Tourism Organisation, said he would like to see PATA at least issue a statement urging a peaceful resolution of the standoff. He said such disputes don’t do any good and only make tourism an indirect victim. In later comments to this editor, he noted that Korea itself was a victim of conflict between divided countries and knew well the impact on the general public.

Indeed, the fallout of these geopolitical conflicts is spreading. Former PATA Chairman Michael Paulin of Hawaii said his state was also being affected. Many of the visitors from China to Hawaii were taking flights via Japan, and due to the other island dispute between China and Japan, those flights had also been impacted.

Not all geopolitical news is bad. In the Chapters Colloquium, the chairmen of the India and Pakistan chapters (Mr. Madhok and Mr. Akbar Shareef) talked positively about the huge tourism potential of the thawing bilateral relations between the two nuclear-armed countries. As government-level talks to boost Indo-Pak trade and relax visas, especially for senior citizens, bear fruit, the two chapters are flagging the possibility of exchanging visits by their committee members and holding joint forums. A clear example of how positive geopolitics benefit travel & tourism and the role PATA can play in advancing them.

People Power

Another example of how empowering the grassroots translates into people power is TripAdvisor, a website that now has millions of viewers. TripAdvisor is basically a forum for discussion, tips and honest advice among grassroots travellers. PATA is now trying to bring in TripAdvisor as a Premier Partner and data-supplier for mPOWER. That should lead to some pause for thought. PATA’s once formidable chapter network did provide a grassroots voice. PATA dismantled that network and, in a reversal of roles, is now seeking the financial help of a website built entirely on the basis of a public discussion forum.

An honest diagnosis of the causes of its predicament will also help PATA identify the failure of the Strategic Intelligence Centre which, in addition to statistics, once provided quality tips, analysis and early-warning on issues directly related to an emerging Asia. Like the dismantling of the chapters network, the policy analysis service for the wider membership was downgraded in favour of big-ticket statistical reports, market research and consultancy projects. This, too, has generated a comparatively low return on investment. Ideally, the SIC should have been at the forefront of doing what the Thailand and India chapters are trying to do – monitoring its members’ wants and needs. The last time it conducted a broad-based membership survey was in 2005 which resulted in a comprehensive report entitled “Asia Pacific Travel & Tourism: The Industry Speaks”. It has never repeated the exercise.

Other small examples of past oversights are also emerging: Mr. Rayner said he discovered that there was no way of applying and paying for PATA membership online. This has now been fixed. During the Chapters Colloquium, the former chapters liaison executive Ms Ben Montgomery, at the urging of Mr. van Walbeek, prepared a SWOT analysis of the entire chapters network based on the discussions held at the last colloquium in Kuala Lumpur. Mr van Walbeek said it was the first time he knew of any such thing being done.

PATA moved to Asia in 1998 when the region was still reeling from the 1997 economic crisis. Since then, Asia has been buffeted paradoxically by both huge crises and massive growth. PATA has become a victim of those crises and clearly been unable to capitalise on the growth. Analysing why still awaits a detailed, honest diagnosis, in spite of top-class business “captains” sitting on various PATA boards and committees, and in spite of numerous strategic plans, restructuring operations and cost-cutting exercises. The challenge of generating revenue by providing products and services that members want and need is still work in progress.

PATA’s biggest nemesis is the next crises, be it geopolitical, environmental, economic or an “act of God”. To deal with these, it needs a new roster of people, policies, products, perspectives and platforms. A medical tourism approach may help — an honest diagnosis, differentiating the symptoms from the cause and a combination of both preventive and curative solutions implemented in a holistic manner. The chapter members were like the “human cells” of PATA. By destroying them, the entire metabolism fell apart. Without rebuilding them, little will be achieved.

Like the Philippines discovered between 1983-86 and various other stages in its history, People Power can be a powerful force for positive change. Empowering people and harnessing People Power can be far more effective than mPOWERing the number-crunchers.