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1 Oct, 2013

PATA UK Chapter Chairman: APD issue has expired its shelf-life, time to move on

Bangkok – The chairman of the PATA UK chapter has signalled PATA CEO Martin Craigs to cease going on about the UK Air Passenger Duty, saying the issue has run out of shelf-life. In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Chris Lee said the UK government has not responded to Mr. Craigs and other travel industry leaders hammering away at it for nearly two years, and is unlikely to do so.

Mr. Lee also backed, in principle, a call by his Thailand counterpart to enhance the PATA chapters by more clearly defining their role vis a vis that of the headquarters and giving them more “voice”. He was responding to a request for a comment on an interview with PATA Thailand chapter chairman Mr. Bert van Walbeek published in Travel Impact Newswire last week. Mr. van Walbeek is calling for a small group of people to come together to brainstorm ways of decentralising and simplifying the PATA structure in order to enhance the value of membership. The call is gaining traction, especially in the wake of growing questions by many of the national tourism organisations, airlines, hotel chains and other such big entities about what the return on investment for their hefty dues and the dichotomy between being a member of the mother-ship and a chapter.

Mr. Lee is the marketing consultant for the Tourism Authority of Thailand in London. He has been chairman of the PATA UK chapter for two years.

On the APD, Mr. Lee said, “I believe that when Martin came on board, by using the APD, he created a campaign which gave him a chance to be seen by some important stakeholders, to put a big set of issues on the stage which allowed him to become a part of a bigger conversation. Given his aviation background, I think he did that well. That’s fine, but it has a shelf life. The truth is that nothing is changing. In fact, the signs are that other countries are adopting the UK model.

“Economically, the APD is a new ‘luxury tax’. In the old days, governments taxed cigarettes and alcohol. Now, it is travel. When a country is undergoing economic difficulties, seeing people enjoying foreign holidays does become a social and political issue. The APD is here to stay and it will not change under a new government. So we’ve lost. Without a doubt, PATA needs a different drum to bang on. It does. There’s nothing else to be said. We’ve said (repeatedly that) it is unfair and it is a tax but in spite of all that, the UK government just put (the APD) up. You can’t just keep picking on the UK government and saying you (should) change. OK, you’ve made your point and you’ve made the argument and the UK government has not changed. PATA needs to find something else.”

Mr. Lee also spoke out on PATA’s structuring and membership issues. His views are important because the UK chapter, one of PATA’s oldest, recently has undergone its own restructuring to become financially-solvent, better targeted and more active. This involved bringing in a new team to run the secretariat, ensuring better communications and balance between the “old” and “new” generations and becoming sharply focussed to function as a trade networking group.

He acknowledged that the restructuring had been painful at times, especially when it came to dealing with “camps” and “control” issues. Today, however, it is a better story – internal differences have been overcome and members are driving ahead with ideas and activities that are growing both the financial reserves and membership.

“The cornerstone is to define what is the objective of a PATA chapter, which is quite different from big PATA (the HQ). It is all about trade engagements, not about branding. In the UK, we are there to create meetings, networking, training and contracting and any other activities which allows our members, the suppliers, to engage with the trade customers who are the tour operators, travel agents and others. Many of our individual members, such as the PATA NTO offices, are already doing a lot on their own. So we focussed on what can we do together. My job (as UK chapter chairman) is to deliver as many activities as I can for the membership. I am not there to make a profit.”

In line with that, Mr. Lee said the UK chapter does a “PATA exchange” which is a contracting event, a “PATA Press,” an annual event with the media, a “Taste of PATA” to showcase the destinations in a street market format.

He cited especially the success of an online training scheme known as the PATA Academy which today boasts a roster of 2,500 travel agents who sign up for a fee to learn more about PATA destinations and how to sell them. After the last PATA summit in April 2013 in Bangkok, where Mr. Lee presented details of how the academy functions, the PATA HQ was asked if it would like to get involved and replicate it elsewhere. He said, “The answer came back, it’s not our priority. So we decided to take it out to the other chapters.”

He said there is no reason why there should not be a similar PATA Academy in every chapter worldwide. “We offered it to Martin and his team and it took them four months to say no. That’s an example of where, if the mother-ship is not going to add value to my process, get out of my way. It was stalled for four months while Martin was making up his mind.”

He said he agreed with the need for a fresh look at the entire structure and membership issue. “The principle of what Bert is saying I agree with, I support and I will get involved. But to do that, we have to put forward something a bit more solid to attract others. We all operate in a very time poor environment.”

He said that in charting the future relationship between chapters and the HQ, it all boiled down to a question of “what do you do for me and what do I do for you? We were at an impasse. Today, Martin does not ask anything of me and I don’t ask anything of Martin. As far as I am concerned, there is no synergy between the mother-ship and the chapters. They are just two very different agendas. My agenda is trade engagement. Martin’s is to get a seat at the big table, advocacy and strategic issues. That’s just not my interest.”

Mr. Lee sounded a note of caution about being realistic in terms of projected outcome.

“We do best by recognizing the strength of what we have and not losing sight of our priorities. I would caution anybody who says that we should be looking for new leadership, complete overhaul and restructuring. The structure is already there. We’ve been through enough restructuring. I don’t see the need for any more committees. We need to follow a slightly different approach. We don’t need to do a complete overhaul. We can share each other’s knowledge and work our way forward. Let the chapters solve our own issues. All we ask is for head office to facilitate it. We’ve got the experience and ideas. The template already exists. We just need to go forward. At the same time, let Martin Craigs be Martin Craigs and continue to do what he does best. We have to recognise what he has done for PATA.”

Mr. Lee cited the long-floated idea of reviving the annual meeting of just the chapter members, as was the case 20 years ago. “That I would definitely agree with. Otherwise, as chapters, we are just a subset of a subset of other things. We need to have a chapters-only meeting. That goes to the heart of the chapter membership. If you want me to care about the mother-ship, you’ve got to give me a platform or a voice at the mother-ship level. We (the chapters) have no voice in how PATA is run. That’s a fact. If you want to me to get involved, you have to give me a voice.”