Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

15 Mar, 2019

Revealed: How Alwin Zecha and I helped the TAT bring the PATA HQ to Bangkok

Alwin Zecha, who passed away on 12 March 2019, was a passionate believer in the grandeur and glory of Asia. His multi-cultural background and multi-lingual capabilities allowed him to convert his passion into action, using the travel & tourism industry and the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) as conjoined conduits. He was the first to serve two consecutive one-year terms as President, as it was then known (later changed to Chairman), and held many other positions far too numerous to list here. Click here for a more detailed biodata.

Erudite and articulate, Mr Zecha always publicly maintained that he saw PATA networking opportunities as being indispensable to advancing his multi-pronged business interests in tour operating, marketing representation, human resources development or GDS. Over the years, he zealously protected these interests, ensuring that he always had a seat somewhere at a PATA table.

Both overtly and covertly, Mr Zecha influenced numerous PATA decisions. Among his top priorities were selections of host cities of the PATA Annual Conference and PATA Travel Mart, then the apex events of their time. These cities would pull out all stops to ensure memorable events. Their respective tourism industries piggybacked on them to step up marketing, boost accessibility and connectivity, and speed up product development.

The ripple effect was phenomenal. Many PATA personalities came and went, depending on their individual positions and priorities, but Mr Zecha was perhaps the only one who remained well-entrenched for decades.

Of all the major decisions he swayed, his role in bringing the PATA office from San Francisco to Bangkok will remain the most memorable. I am proud to have played a role in that, too. For years, it was our very private, closely guarded secret. Now that he has passed away, I am declassifying the conversation which, in a small but significant way, helped facilitate the decision.

Rest in Peace, Alwin. Your wheeling and dealing was a class act. The current generation may have no idea who you were, but there are at least a few of us left who do. So here goes…..


Some time in early 1998, I was sitting in Alwin Zecha’s former office in the Maneeya Centre, downtown Bangkok, interviewing him about the ongoing political bunfight and the intense backdoor lobbying under way to move the PATA office from San Francisco to somewhere in Asia.

As usual, he switched to “background” mode and gave me a rundown of who was backing which city and why. He then explained how the process would wind its way through the PATA channels.

At that stage, all the bids had been submitted. The contenders were Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Macau. The Thailand bid was submitted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, then headed by Mr Seree Wangpaichitr. All bids were pretty strong, backed by various members of the PATA fraternity well aware of the prestige and business potential that would come with it.

There was no question which city Mr Zecha favoured. In 1994, he had moved his Pacific Leisure group HQ from Hong Kong to Bangkok in the buildup to the 1997 handover of the former British colony to China. Mr Zecha was never one to put all his eggs in one basket. Spreading the risk, he maintained a presence in Hong Kong, but moved most of his business to Bangkok.

Yes, having the PATA CEO and staff also in the same city would be very convenient indeed.

He knew it and I knew it.

So there we were in his office, engaged in an interview that I remember vividly.

I asked him point blank, “Which city would you favour?”

“Aaah,” he replied in that signature baritone. “You’re not going to get me on that one. I am supposed to be neutral.”

“Yes, of course,” I nodded. “But after you’re done being neutral, which city would you favour?”

He answered the question with a question, “Which one do you think?”

I got the message. “So, how are you going to fix it?”

He feigned indignation.

“What do you mean ‘fix it’? I don’t fix anything… It’s entirely up to the committee and the board members. There’s a very clear-cut process.”

“Yes, sure,” I said. “But as you are on the board, what’s going to be your argument in favour of this unnamed city?”

He explained how the scoring the system would work. The shortlisted cities would be evaluated on the basis of various criteria. The points would be totalled up, and the winning name sent to the executive management committee before being presented to the board and General Assembly for ratification.

So, I said, “What’s the criteria?”

He explained that.

Then, ever so slyly, he asked me: “Which city would YOU prefer?”

I flipped the question back: “Which one do you think?”

We both looked intently, and silently, at each other. We had found common ground.

He broke the silence. “You want to help me get the ammunition together?”

I echoed his earlier reply, “I can’t do that. I am supposed to be neutral.”

He didn’t bat an eyelid. “Yeah, sure. But after you’re done being neutral, you want to help me with the ammunition?”

I looked at him. He waited and then said, “Well?”

I said, “What do you want me to do?”

He said, “Now that we’ve got past this neutrality business…. I just told you the criteria. Give me all the strong points of Bangkok. I need to make a case.”

I said, “The Thais should have put all of that into their bid. I’m sure they’ve done a good job.”

“I know,” he said. “The TAT has already been in touch. But I don’t know exactly what they’ve put in their bid. They may need some help.”

Sure, I said, “Let me see what I can do.”

After swapping a few ideas to buttress the criteria, I had a pretty good idea of what he was looking for to get the job done.

I rose to leave. “So how do you plan to fix it?”

He waved me away with that unforgettable grin. “You leave that to me.”

Over the next few days, I researched each of the various criteria (location, costs, accessibility, staff availability, freedom of expression, support of the local NTO, history of involvement with and support for PATA, national tourism potential, opportunity to liaise with other international organisations located in Bangkok, easy for the CEO to travel).

One sticking point was the cumbersome bureaucratic process of getting work permits, etc, for foreign staff. Mr Zecha later told me he had been assured by the late Gen Chalermchai Charuvastr, the first head of what was then known as the Tourism Organisation of Thailand, that that would not be an issue.

I faxed the bullet-points over to his office. He called a little later. “Just what I wanted,” he said.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In Manila, a few weeks later, Mr Zecha went into the board meeting. I was waiting outside when it broke up. He walked past me without a word, just a quick glance and smile that said it all.

The deal was done.

After the official announcement, we met up at an evening function. “You keep my name out of it,” he exhorted. “Make sure the TAT gets the credit.”

I was happy to oblige.

Mr Zecha’s death on 12 March was just 17 days short of the 20th anniversary of that historic decision.


The full official text of the decision, including the criteria for the selection of Bangkok

On April 28, 1998, a few weeks after the decision was made, I filed this report for Travel Monitor, my former weekly column in the Bangkok Post


The decision by the Asia-Pacific region’s largest travel industry association to move its headquarters from the US to Bangkok is a major coup for the beleaguered Thai travel industry.

By plugging into the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s vast membership of 17,000 and properly accessing its extensive information resources, the Thai tourism industry could emerge a major winner in an increasingly competitive regional scenario.

When it moves to Bangkok in September, PATA will become the fourth major travel industry grouping to be located here after the regional office of the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the Transport, Communications and Tourism Division of the UN ESCAP and the World Travel & Tourism Council.

The fact that these other groupings are already located in Bangkok figured prominently in the decision to move here, especially as PATA, facing considerable cost pressure, is planning to substantially bolster its alliances with other travel industry groupings in its bid to provide a higher level of membership service.

PATA’s President and CEO Joe McInerney, who headed Forte Hotels before joining PATA last year, is also looking to work with many of the UN organisations like UNESCO, UNICEF, UNEP and the World Health Organisation, all of which have their regional offices in Bangkok and are closely involved with many issues relevant to the travel industry.

It is also expected to give a major shot of confidence to other regional and multinational companies weighing up locations of future headquarters.

Founded in 1952 in Hawaii, PATA has been based in San Francisco for more than 40 years. It is one of the world’s largest private/public sector trade associations with a membership of 40 national governments throughout the region, 76 airlines and cruise lines, 2,200 travel and tourism related businesses and organisations and more than 17,000 members in 79 chapters world-wide.

Those kind of links can yield substantial benefits for Thailand. Though PATA is at the service of its membership in the entire Asia-Pacific, Thailand-based industry will obviously be well-positioned to plug into PATA’s ample data and strategic resources, all at the cost of a phone call or a personal visit to the PATA office.

One of the most significant will be the Strategic Information Centre, now based in Singapore but to be moved to Bangkok. The centre is PATA’s industry monitoring watchdog and plays a major role in the gathering of information on which PATA bases its programmes and policies.

To have front-door access to this centre could be major blessing for the dozens of Thai universities and tourism training colleges which have long suffered from poor quality of information and lack of resources to obtain it. Also to be located in Thailand will be a newly appointed human resources director as well as the regional communications director.

The office could also help open up new marketing channels for the Thai tourism industry. Not only will it be visited by dozens of international travel & tourism dignitaries, the number of small meetings held in Thailand will also proportionately increase.

Thailand won the bid on the basis of a professionally-packaged presentation by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The main component of that was a matrix index that compared the costs of working and living in Bangkok vis a vis seven other Southeast Asian capitals.

Bangkok came ahead of all except Macau. However, Bangkok clearly edged out Macau in terms of being a more ‘international’ city in which to base the HQ of a major regional travel industry association.

In its public statement, PATA also acknowledged the city’s extensive airline connections, its free Press and presence of a large corps of foreign corespondents, and high quality staff availability. The most important point, however, was that it was a central location, right at the heart of the PATA membership region.

There is still some concern amongst the PATA staff about the city’s traffic conditions. Efforts are being made to help the staff find office and residential space within close proximity to cut their commuting time.

The decision to move was made in record time, barely a few months. Mr McInerney was keen to get what would otherwise have been a politically hot-potato issue off his plate so that he could get on with the job of running the association and delivering membership services.

At the PATA conference in Manila, he identified getting the regional travel and tourism industry moving again as his major priority and unveiled several strategic initiatives to help that process.

He talked of helping members with discount purchasing programmes and joint advertising and training opportunities. A new sponsorship programme and preferred partner alliances will also be formed. The educational programmes are to be revamped and travel communicators workshops are to be held regional.

PATA also announced the formation of a new Office of the Environment and Culture to add depth to its Green Leaf environmental brand and expand the application of its Code for Environmentally Responsible Tourism.

In a major departure from the past, Mr McInerney also announced that “PATA is going to take stands on issues — everyone may not agree with every position we take — but to be the Voice and Leader of Pacific Asia tourism, we cannot stand quietly by. We must take positions that affect the majority of our members.”

However, he urged members not to be under any illusions that results would emerge overnight. “Given the economic situation in the region, the next 12-18 months will be tough for individuals, the industry and the region.” But, he added, “PATA is a tremendous resource to assist you through these most difficult times.”

TAT Governor Seree Wangpaichitr, who spearheaded the winning bid, was clearly elated with the move. One of his priorities, he said, would be to start packaging a presentation to help the various arms of the Thai government better understand what PATA is all about and how they can use it to improve the standards and services of Thailand’s largest foreign exchange earning industry.