ABTA has successfully hosted its first Convention in Japan, with the 2019 Convention in Tokyo, writes Sam Ballard.
The event brought together 430 industry professionals to discuss major issues including the failure of Thomas Cook, climate change and Brexit. It was held at the Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa.
During his opening remarks, Mark Tanzer, the CEO of ABTA, addressed the issue of Thomas Cook’s recent failure, saying that the closure was a failure of corporate finance, rather than a failure of the travel industry.
“Thomas Cook’s financial challenges were no secret, but the full extent of their indebtedness has only come to light recently.
“Thomas Cook paid £1.2bn in finance charges over the past six years, plus goodness knows how much in advisory fees. Those were profits from its holiday business, money that in a more balanced financial model would have been available to invest and develop the business.”
The travel giants closure was discussed in detail during sessions throughout the Convention. John Bevan, the CEO of dnata, which runs Travel 2 and Gold Medal, described the Atol Certificate as a “joke” – calling for tour operators to have better access to customer data if a company goes bust.
He revealed that it had taken a week for Dnata to get details of the customers who had booked with Thomas Cook, with many trying to rebook. Bevan said that the company would now be changing its terms to insist on being given an email address and phone number of every customer.
“Hopefully our travel agent partners will understand that we are a B2B business and have no interest in that data,” he said.
The remarks were backed up by Alistair Rowland, the chief retail officer of Midcounties Coop and recently appointed ABTA chairman, who said that the relationship between tour operators and travel agencies had changed in recent years.
During a session on Thomas Cook, Rowland also said that rules over when customers’ cash is collected needed to be made clearer. Many tour operators were not aware of whether a full balance had been collected from customers of Thomas Cook when the company went bust.
During a sobering session on climate change, Dr Gabrielle Walker, a climate expert, said that the travel industry needed to act immediately – and not make future pledges – when it came to protecting the environment. She added that it was probably too late for the Great Barrier Reef.
Tanzer also referenced climate change in his speech, saying that the government should not tax flying more heavily, but instead reshape the current tax system to direct funds to “investment in technology”.
Responsible travel, and its rise, was covered in a panel that included both cruise line and airline executives. Tony Roberts, of Princess Cruises, highlighted that the cruise industry was moving to LNG powered ships and that more ships were going to plug in to shoreside energy supplies, reducing their carbon footprint. However, he added, the infrastructure has yet to be developed in many destinations.
The convention also saw sessions on the future of retail, marketing to millennials and a lesson in handshakes from a behavioural psychologist. Peter Foster, the Europe editor of The Daily Telegraph delivered a speech on Brexit while Marcel Theroux, a novelist and broadcaster delivered remarks on Japanese etiquette. The theme was expanded on further with Philippe Gas, president and managing director of Walt Disney Japan, who explained how Disney’s global brand had managed to achieve success at a local level.
ABTA Lifeline the charity held an appeal especially for the staff of Thomas Cook. There was a silent auction and raffle. Overall more than £60,000 was raised by the closing party.