Trouble in PATA-dise?

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(eTN) – It has been difficult to decipher what it is that is going on with the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) lately.

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(eTN) – It has been difficult to decipher what it is that is going on with the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) lately. Beyond the ubiquity of PATA’s CEO, Martin Craigs, at conferences by the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), the current status of PATA has been hard to figure out. In the light of the organization’s own admission, it has lost a million dollars in the past two years. One thing that has become painfully obvious, however, is that the organization’s human resources department has been unusually busy of late.

Just last week, PATA’s chief financial officer (CFO), Nawarat Khamsai, announced her resignation as of July 31, then PATA sent out a news release on June 29, 2012, stating that Pairoj Kiatthunsamai is the organization’s new CFO effective July 31, 2012.

As of Monday, PATA’s “musical chairs” has seen Stu Lloyd (marketing and membership senior director for PATA since last August) stepping down and the promotion of a “part-time outsourced events organizer” named Sheila Leong as the organization’s new chief operating officer. Sheila was actually “outsourced” in August last year after 13 years in charge of events, a territory she continued to handle on a three-day-a-week basis until her shock “promotion” yesterday to COO in charge of events, membership, and the four regional directors.

Also obvious is that PATA is busy preparing for its annual Travel Mart, which is scheduled to take place in Manila, Philippines, this coming September. This, too, is being seen by industry insiders as a major cause of concern within the PATA structure. It has been widely reported that China and the Philippines are involved in a political conflict, which has affected tourism. On May 11, 2012, Chinese media reported that travel agencies from China had suspended trips to the Philippines. The conflict between the two South Asian countries is over a small island within the South China Sea, the Scarborough Shoal. Fearing the safety of their customers, Chinese travel agencies in May suspended trips to the Philippines, including tour packages. Chinese travel agencies claimed that this will go on until the situation in the country improves. Also, they then said that they will not be accepting bookings.

ETN crisis expert David Beirman, who has been involved in some of PATA’s recent projects, said: “I am aware of the fact that China is intending to boycott the event due to a territorial dispute with the Philippines (all of which has very little to do with PATA and its work). I hope this will not eventuate, but I have seen that Chinese political sensitivities sometimes force their tourism people to act against their own best interests.”

He added: “I recall about 10 years ago when a whole group of Chinese exhibitors pulled out of a Sydney consumer travel expo, because they were having a dispute with Taiwan. A Chinese boycott, if it eventuates in two months, would be most unfortunate, but considering PATA represents 60 countries, it would actually be hard to refer to it as a crisis and more a case of China missing out on a great opportunity to promote itself as one of the world’s leading tourism destinations.”

Some, however, do not share Beirman’s optimism. If China does boycott PATA’S Travel Mart in Manila, some industry insiders feel that it could cause a major strain on this year’s PATA Travel Mart, with some even emailing us to say that “half the buyers and sellers will not show up if China doesn’t.” If this scenario plays out, then PATA could be in deep trouble as “the Travel Mart is PATA’s only remaining viable money-making proposition.”

Unfortunately for PATA, it cannot count on membership fees to keep itself afloat. Membership has been dwindling as of late. Even Khamsai, former PATA financial officer, admitted to that “it was only natural for members, especially the top-paying airlines and national tourism organizations, to be taking a wait-and-see attitude before resuming their membership.” Among those who won’t be returning as a member, however, includes the Singapore Tourism Board, in spite of Craigs “doing a belly dance three times to try to lure them back.”

A source who requested anonymity told eTN: “They are owed several hundred thousand dollars in unpaid membership dues. Membership, when these names are removed, is about 400, which is simply not sustainable.”

The good news, according to PATA’s former financial officer, Khamsai, is that “there is still a lot of support” for the beleaguered organization, and PATA CEO Martin Craigs “is doing his best to bring in new members.” Still, it’s painfully obvious that even such efforts and support are not enough reason for her to stay, as she chose to “move on” after having been with the organization for three years.

Craigs is known to be in London now, fronting a PATA Hub City Forum, which is regarded by insiders as “just another platform for him to get his resume out there.” There is talk about him flying business class to London on British Airways, at “a cost of more than $6,000 and this is simply money PATA coffers doesn’t have anymore.”

Also, our source added that “PATA staff are sending their resumes out left, right, and center, but being some of the best-paid staff in tourism in Thailand, they are finding it hard to replicate their current packages, particularly in a very tight market.”

Craigs has admitted in the media that the appointment by acting CEO Bill Calderwood last year of two senior hires, Lloyd and Reid Ridgeway, was possibly not a sound idea in advance of his own hire.

One insider, who was interviewed for the position of senior director: marketing and membership, actually asked Calderwood this very question at the interview.

The response: “I am in charge of all the hiring; they will all fit in very nicely.” This has now fallen apart with the two high profile departures, and critics are wondering when the CEO himself will be on his way.

[UPDATE: July 9, 2012 – It has come to our attention that the reference to Alex Rayner being an employee of PATA is inaccurate, as Mr. Rayner himself has stated in a letter to eTN that he is in fact not a present employee of PATA. eTN apologizes for any inconvenience this erranous information may have caused.]

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