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24 Sep, 2013

Thailand Chapter Chief Calls for PATA Overhaul to Put Chapters in Driving Seat

BANGKOK – The chairman of the PATA Thailand chapter, Mr. Bert van Walbeek, has called for an overhaul of the PATA management and administrative structures in order to better prepare the association for the challenges of rapidly changing times.

“I don’t think that those who had the foresight to move the headquarters to Asia (in 1998) could have imagined the kind of changes taking place today,” he said in an interview. With the head office under too much pressure to handle too many different things across too much territory, “the future lies with the chapters,” Mr. van Walbeek said.

He said the present complex plethora of committees, chapters, a board, executive board, with all the varied nomination and election processes, financial requirements and membership conditions “just don’t make sense” any more, especially when evaluated against tangible outcomes.

The key message he conveyed in a lengthy interview was that PATA needs to be decentralised and simplified in order to make it more responsive to evolving market conditions. He called for a small group of active, passionate people to step up and brainstorm the formulation of a “totally new concept” for PATA.

His comments come in the wake of a financial report presented to the board at its last meeting in Chengdu. The report showed that all the key drivers of PATA income are in slow-gear, especially the PATA Travel Mart and the Strategic Intelligence Centre. The other potential income generator mPower has yet to produce results.

The report, one of the best produced by the organisation under Mr Pairoj Kiatthunsamai, the Chief Financial Officer, envisages a small surplus of US$16,153 under the reforecast budget proposal this year, if a small group of six NTOs pay their overdue membership dues on time. Should that materialise, PATA will emerge from three years of red-ink.

Three of the key outsourced consultants, Mr. John Koldowski, Mr. Alex Rayner and Ms Sheila Leong, will be taking cuts in their annual contracts to free up money to hire a new Chief Operating Officer. The report projects the surplus growing to just under US$90,000 by 2016, assuming that membership income can grow from US$1.74 million this year to US$2.12 million in the same period.

PATA has also crafted an extensive wish-list of to-do’s in the 2014-16 Business Plan. The 17-page document is designed to help “PATA stand apart from the crowd” with a series of projects, programmes, activities.

However, Mr. van Walbeek said that without the requisite financial and human resources, the business plan will quickly encounter a chicken or egg situation. The plan cites PATA’s strengths and opportunities, but makes no mention of any weaknesses or threats. In that sense, it becomes a somewhat unrealistic assessment of projected outcomes.

At the heart of the matter is membership, and the need to sort out who pays how much to be a member and what benefit they derive.

Mr. van Walbeek said major NTOs and airlines and premier partners constantly reassess what they get for their membership. On the other hand, thousands of small & medium sized enterprises across the Asia-Pacific region could reap the benefits of PATA membership, but have no desire to join the Big PATA at a much higher price.

In fact, Mr. van Walbeek said, many corporate members of Big PATA are opting simply to be chapter members, because it is much cheaper and they cannot really see much difference in benefits. He said that trend would continue.

To try and address it, the former Director of Chapters and Membership services Mrs Ben Montgomery, who is now vice-chairperson of the Hospitality committee as a representative of her new employer the Centara Group of Hotels & Resorts, had produced a detailed proposal to rationalise membership. However, Mr. van Walbeek believes that proposal needs to be part of a much broader overhaul of PATA operations.

He cited the Skal clubs, which had also faced a huge crisis of relevance and seen sharp cutbacks in global membership. That decline has now been stemmed and Skal is just a global spread of clubs coordinated by a small secretariat. It also had to shake off the image of a collection of old-timers getting together for nothing more than a social jolly.

Mr. van Walbeek indicated that implementing the PATA 2014-16 business plan was also linked to speed of the decision-making process. He said decisions could be best made at the chapter level in order to press ahead with the various activities, on a self-funding basis.

He emphasised repeatedly that his views were being presented in a constructive spirit. He said he had no intention of upsetting anyone, just to bring some ideas into the public domain and initiate a positive discussion on how best to address the challenges.

He pointed out certain realities of the current status quo:

(+) Staff are the head office are overloaded with too much to do in too little time and with too few resources;

(+) The board and executive board only meet twice a year.

(+) The various committees such as hospitality, aviation and education/training also meet only twice a year. Their performance depends on the personal interest and enthusiasm of the individual chairpersons.

(+) Chapters vary from place to place, with active and inactive chapters, even as new chapters emerge. In some places, chapters are strong on outbound but weak on inbound.

Mr. van Walbeek outlined the benefits an overhaul to make chapters the key drivers of PATA programmes and activities:

(+) More flexibility and autonomy. PATA chapters will be able to pursue their own projects based on decisions made at the local level.

(+) That will help them build the business of their members. Chapters know their local conditions best.

(+) Put “people power” back into PATA.

(+) Improving communications amongst chapters to exchange experiences, share knowledge, network, advance advocacy and build capacity.

(+) Grow the membership by attracting a good mix of inbound, outbound and domestic travel companies.

(+) Boost attendance at an annual conference as all the chapter members will be able to attend it. Host chapters which bid for the conference will have to compete against themselves to upgrade both quality and quantity of attendance.

Mr. van Walbeek acknowledged that he is advocating a complete turnaround from the past when attempts were made to dismantle the chapters and convert PATA into a rich man’s club. That disastrous policy was one of the primary reasons for the steep decline of the association.

He said chapter chairpersons could automatically be members of a larger governing and coordinating body. That will flatten the administrative hierarchy and reduce turf-battles. Head office staff will be trimmed down to a handful of administrative coordinators. Finances can be managed under a revenue-sharing system with the chapters based on both membership dues and earnings from events.

He also questioned whether the PATA Travel Mart serves any useful purpose. Reasons: There already are too many marts, and destinations are less inclined to provide the hosting facilities. Face-to-face networking is diminishing in importance due to the impact of technology. Moreover, the entire contracting process has dissolved in an era when rates change by the day, often by the hour.

A leaner, faster-moving and active PATA would be able to build on its unique selling proposition of being the only travel body of its kind in the Asia Pacific region and work as an equal partner with other counterpart organisations, such as in Africa and Europe, to advance the interests of the global travel & tourism industry.

He said that initiating a process to design a completely new concept of PATA does not need approval from the Executive Board. It could be taken up by like-minded members of existing chapters under a “coordinator” (as against “chairman”) to arrange timing and process. No formal meeting would even be required in the early stages. Discussions can be held over skype.

He complimented PATA CEO Martin Craigs for his PR and promotional skills, which have maintained and raised the association’s profile under difficult circumstances. However, creating a NextGen structure may require another skills-set.

He said he was looking forward to the appointment of a future Chief Operating Officer, a position which has been advertised by PATA. That would help improve coordination and allow proper follow-up of ongoing chapter and other activities.

Mr. van Walbeek can be reached here: bert@twe-winningedge.com