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15 Sep, 2013

How PATA’s slick CEO “salesman” missed a chance to become a visionary “statesman”

Nearly two years after becoming CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, Mr. Martin Craigs has proved to be a formidable “salesman” but has a long way to go to attain “statesman” status. With his contract up for renewal, Mr. Craigs will have to work a lot harder to put the “Asia” back into the Pacific Asia Travel Association if he wishes to take credit for putting the once august body back on even keel. His recent presence at the 20th General Assembly of the UN World Tourism Organisation in Zambia/Zimbabwe in August 2013, provides some indication of the missing vision and policy initiatives needed to enhance the role of travel & tourism in the emerging Asian Century.

PATA CEO Mr Martin Craigs, in blue T-shirt, at the David Livingstone Hotel in Zambia. Those people in the group are not UNWTO delegates. Who are they?

The UNWTO General Assembly is the apex meeting of global tourism ministers. Held every two years, it is the equivalent of a shareholders meeting at which UNWTO country members and associate members discuss a specific theme, outline their plans and strategies, and propose new ideas and initiatives. Like most UN forums, it becomes a useful platform to blow their individual trumpets and/or to learn from each other’s experiences. As the PATA fraternity holds its annual Travel Mart and Board meetings in Chengdu this weekend, an update on Mr. Craigs’ presence at the General Assembly may prove useful in the interests of transparency and accountability of the CEO’s performance.

Mr. Craigs was absent for the first two days of the four-day General Assembly. He told me he was sick, an apparent reaction to anti-yellow fever and -malaria tablets. He turned up on the third day of the four-day event to deliver a speech that contained the familiar roster of subjects – attacking the UK government over the Airline Passenger Duty and its impact on travel, talking briefly about his aviation background and the need to enhance aviation access and connectivity within Africa. He referred obliquely to the situation in Syria, citing his Irish background in order to underscore the importance of a negotiated settlement. He also attacked the media (“the media must be confronted”), along with another reminder of how he became PATA’s Bangkok-based CEO in November 2011, the same month Thailand was recovering from severe flooding, and his scathing criticism of the coverage that disaster was receiving in the global TV networks.

Compared to the erudite and clear-cut speeches delivered by heads of two other global tourism bodies, the International Hotels and Restaurants Association and the World Travel & Tourism Council, Mr. Craigs’ effort left much to be desired. In fact, it was in stark contrast to the very lucid speech that UNWTO Secretary General Dr Taleb Rifai made when he attended the PATA summit in April 2013 in Bangkok. During that summit, PATA and the UNWTO signed a strategic partnership agreement.

Had Mr. Craigs been better prepared, he could have used the General Assembly in Africa to build on that partnership agreement and propose some visionary initiatives to tap the huge travel potential between Africa and Asia. He could have advocated the need to capitalise on the July 2013 trip by Thai Prime Minister Mrs Yingluck Shinawatra to Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda, and propose an Asia-Africa travel forum in cooperation with the UNWTO. He could have discussed sustainability, visas, investments, facilitation and much more. The feedstock for such policy and project proposals ought to have been provided by the Strategic Intelligence Centre, which claims to “offer unrivalled data and insights including Asia Pacific inbound and outbound statistics, analyses and forecasts”.

But he didn’t.

Hence, the return on investment for PATA members from that trip is questionable. Mr. Craigs did provide some lobbying support for the Cambodians in their bid to host the next General Assembly in 2015. But that proved to be too little too late as Cambodia lost the bid. Mr. Craigs reportedly missed other side-events, such as a forum to discuss Asia-Latin America travel. The job of flying the PATA flag was left to Mr. Klaus Lengefeld, a consultant for the German aid agency who is involved in PATA’s activities on sustainable development.

Mr. Craigs also lost a opportunity to raise PATA’s profile by taking up a critical issue impacting global travel & tourism, without fear or favour. In his bold attacks on the UK government over the APD, he has described it as being an act of “neocolonialism”. On the day he spoke at the UNWTO General Assembly, the UK Parliament was preparing to vote to sanction an attack on Syria. But Mr. Craigs’ tepid mention of the then looming conflict paled in comparison to the language he uses when thundering against the APD. The next day, the UK Parliament voted against war. Had Mr. Craigs opened a full-frontal assault on the need to avert war, he would have gone down in history as a courageous industry leader who put principles above politics in defending the interests of his dues-paying members. The rest of the industry would have certainly rallied around.

But he didn’t.

As a CEO, Mr. Craigs’ strengths and weaknesses are plain to see. He is widely acknowledged as a PR whiz with an uncanny knack for securing photo opps with people of influence. Indeed, such PR is important to prove that PATA still has life in it. But without a clear recognition of the emerging challenges of the Asian Century, it lacks credible policy support and proves to be merely style over substance. The anachronistic “visitor economy” slogan is another example; tourism is no longer about economies and jobs. It has moved much beyond that. If PATA were to shut down tomorrow, travel & tourism would still continue to generate income and jobs.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Craigs is facing criticism about his much too frequent travels. One long-standing PATA member refers to this as the “red-carpet syndrome.” The association is seeking a new Chief Operations Officer whose job description indicates PATA’s need for a more office-bound person to mind the store while Mr. Craigs travels the world.

Mr Craigs has also done other U-turns. He once advocated “transparency and accountability” but now seems to have backtracked. In managing the association, he has a lot to learn from Dr Rifai, whom he refers to as his “now very good friend.” In addition to being very transparent (all the working papers, financial reports and background documents on the 20th General Assembly were posted on the UNWTO website), Dr Rifai operates in line with a carefully-crafted plan, ensures that all policy and programmes are in line with that, makes crystal-clear public speeches, presents his case coherently and, most important, does not indulge in confrontations. In other words, he plays by the rules which, he maintains, are in line with the policies mandated and approved by the members themselves. He thus rises above the fray and does not fear criticism. In fact, as he said publicly, he encourages it because it makes him upgrade his performance. Mr Craigs’ management style does not even come close.

This year’s PATA Travel Mart has been a low key affair, with little of the rah-rah bluster about how successful it is. Facing extensive competition from many others, the mart is struggling to retain its erstwhile role as one of the association’s primary money-spinners. Although a steady membership attrition over the last few years has been arrested, the association has yet to articulate a clear vision of its unique value proposition in the new emerging world order. If that can be done, and adequately reflected in Mr. Craigs’ speeches, it may help expedite PATA’s return to its days of former glory.