As PATA CEO Peter de Jong is leaving Asia Pacific’s prestigious travel trade association in less than ten days, eTurboNews got an exclusive interview on the reasons for the move and on De Jong’s review of his seven years at the helm of the organization. A retrospective without concessions…
Have you been affected by rumors about PATA in recent months on the alleged lack of transparency and accountability? Did it precipitate your decision to leave?
Peter de Jong: My decision to leave PATA by mid-October was motivated by two things. We started to seriously review candidates for the PATA CEO position prior to the Travel Mart in Hyderabad. I must say the selection panel proceeded very smoothly, and we decided to accelerate the selection process. If all goes according to plan, my successor could take charge of the association perhaps as early as January of next year. The second element that influenced my decision was based on recent approaches to me to consider exciting new professional opportunities. Some of those would require an earlier starting date than mid-2009. While my decision was not directly linked to recent allegations about the lack of transparency at PATA, I do hope that my departure might diminish some of the undeserved media attacks on our association for which I had become ‘the lightning rod.’
Were you affected by various negative reports and information from some media about ‘low morale’ among PATA staff, even suggesting a move of the PATA headquarters out of Bangkok?
Peter de Jong: The latter is absolute rubbish. There has never been any discussion during these past seven years about a departure from Thailand. In fact, we are very committed to stay here. I’m not aware of ‘low morale’ among PATA staff, though the constant media bashing by some journalists does puzzle them – our staff does not recognize the organization they work for in those stories. I’m less troubled by the personal attacks – they come with the territory when you’re a CEO. One must always consider the source; serious industry leaders told me that they no longer bothered to read these articles. Let’s remember that PATA has served our industry for more than half a century. We’re not perfect; we make mistakes. But we have systems in place, through committees and a board of directors and AGM, to address and fix these. Perhaps our system isn’t perfect, but it still works.
Will PATA change some of its structures to create greater transparency?
Peter de Jong: In Colombo last April, I recommended to our executive committee that we conduct a comprehensive review of our governance model, taking a close and hard look at all decision-making levels. Our chairman Janice Antonson fully embraced this initiative and will drive it this year. On the premise ‘nothing in, nothing out,’ we’re taking a holistic approach. The aim is to empower and engage each individual member. The challenge then becomes how you organize your decision-making process to achieve a modern, transparent membership association. Our initial executive committee discussions in Hyderabad were most encouraging and a consensus is emerging. In the next sixty days, we’ll submit our first concrete thoughts to the board of directors. Based on their input, we then aim to present a set of proposals to the board in April next year. Again, the premise will be a ‘bottom up’ approach, with member engagement and empowerment. To the extent that our two journalist friends have championed that, we would agree. It will pose a ambitious challenge to the new CEO to help lead that change process.
What are you proud of after seven years at PATA?
Peter de Jong: I am particularly proud that we built our skills to react and assist quickly during the big crises that our industry has endured in recent years. Our communications capability and our recovery support have been of great comfort to our members and destinations. I am also proud of the PATA CEO Challenge. It was a very focused, high-level event, which helped the association reconnect with new generations of decision-makers. CEOs and other industry leaders came prepared to share their best practices, leave their ‘silo,’ and reach out to other industry sectors. I’m delighted that we’ll hold our second CEO Challenge in December of next year, again in Bangkok. But perhaps I’m proudest of the credibility and visibility that PATA’s voice has achieved on the international stage – we’re globally recognized as the authoritative and articulate spokesperson and advocate for the Asia Pacific travel and tourism community.
And your regrets?
Peter de Jong: Perhaps I underestimated the importance of a general membership networking event, a bit like the PATA Annual Conference. We aim to fix that next April when we’ll build up the PAM (PATA Annual Meeting) with features that will engage the rank and file of our membership and our Chapters. I also regret that we did not manage to rejuvenate our Association enough to attract more young executives to join the association and its leadership groups. I’m sorry we haven’t yet found the right formula to properly engage and support our Chapters. All of us leave certain tasks undone, and I’m no exception. But on balance, I leave PATA with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
What were for you, personally, the most memorable moments with PATA?
Peter de Jong: I was thrilled to help open the Association to the notion of ‘total tourism’ – promoting tourism not only ‘to and within,’ but also ‘from’ Asia Pacific. That opened the door to tourist boards in such destinations as the UK, Germany, Abu Dhabi and Dubai – they’re now actively engaged with PATA. On a personal note, PATA gave me the opportunity to discover and appreciate Thailand and its amazing people. I hope to stay in this great nation for many years to come.
Do you think that you will remain involved with the association?
Peter de Jong: Seven years is a long period as CEO of a high-profile, ambitious travel trade association. With fresh ideas and dynamism, my successor will take PATA to new levels of success. As for me, time will tell. Perhaps I’ll resurface as a regular PATA member, taking full advantage of that new member empowerment we’re working on!