Conferencing with UNWTO, WTTC and JATA

Monday 7, October 2013


Conferencing with UNWTO, WTTC and JATA


Covering three major global travel and tourism industry events in the span of three weeks took most of my August and September.


From August 19 to September 5, I was in Zambia for the 20th edition of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)’s general assembly, then flew back to the US for a night (on September 6) in order to catch my flight from Los Angeles to Seoul, South Korea, on September 7 for the first-ever Asia regional summit by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). The Seoul event took place from September 10 to 11, but it required me to be in Seoul from September 8 to 11. I then flew from Seoul to Tokyo on September 11 for this year’s edition of the Japan Association of Travel Agents (JATA)’s TABIHAKU Travel Showcase, which took place from September 12-15.


Since all of the above-mentioned events were aiming to be of global caliber, the below assessment of the three events is based on how they fared in three major components--registration, relevance and quality of attendees. This article will also examine these three events in terms of achievements, challenges and opportunities for growth.


I was particularly keen on attending the UNWTO event, as it marked the first time in the history of the organization that two neighboring countries, Zambia and Zimbabwe, were designated hosts for what is normally a one country, one city task. The opportunity for this general assembly, from my perspective as a journalist who covers global industry events, is unique in that Zambia and Zimbabwe was given the chance to put on a friendly competition and see who can impress the most. This is a conference model that the United States Travel Association’s POW WOW International executes so effortlessly year after year.


Ease of registration
Having two countries host an event should make registration twice faster, right? Well, in UNWTO’s 20th general assembly, this simply cannot be said. It took three attempts before I got my press badge. Per UNWTO’s instructions, delegates were to obtain their badge on August 23 at either Zambezi Sun Hotel (on the Zambian side) or Elephant Hills Hotel (on the Zimbabwean side). My first attempt to get my badge at Zambezi Sun was derailed by frustrated delegates who had stood in line “for hours” to get their badge. Here is where Zambians could have done better. The designated registration area was too small and Zambian staff was greatly outnumbered by the people who were trying to get their hands on their badge. That was problem one. Problem two was the lack of contingency plan for machine/computer malfunctions. On my second attempt, I made it to the front of the line only to be told that the printers were “broken.” It took Zambian Tourism Minister Sylvia Masebo herself to take control of the situation by sending a bus-full of attendees, me included, to the Zimbabwean side to collect our badge. It took me less than 15 minutes to get my press badge once I got to Elephant Hills Hotel, where it was clear that the registration process was more well-thought-out. A temporary tent was designated as “registration area,” separate lines were formed accordingly, and, most importantly, there were sufficient people in the staff.


For the WTTC event, registration was a breeze. Two very obvious booths handled delegates and press, respectively. This does not come as a surprise, as WTTC has a reputation for its meticulous attention to details. Having the two-day summit program printed on the back of my badge was helpful not only for its convenience, but it allowed me to plan my participation (which included interviews apart from the sessions) at the event.


For JATA’s event, registration was simple. It was done at the front desk during check-in at my designated hotel, the Prince Hotel. It was a great idea, but it could have been better executed. In my 13 years of covering industry events, this was the first time I was ever given a generic badge which required me to insert my business card in the area where my name would normally be printed. It made it a lot harder to remember names because comparing fonts on a business card to an actual badge is akin to comparing apples and oranges. On functionality, this trick did not serve attendees well. It did, however, make the job easier for those who were working in security and entry points.


Relevance of issues covered
UNTWO’s general assembly covered issues that were mostly relevant to its members, which fall in four categories--member states (represented usually by a country’s tourism minister), associate members (destinations that are categorized as special administrative regions), observer members (neither recognized as a country nor as an SAR), and affiliate members (private sector, educational institutions, tourism associations and local tourism authorities). At last count, there were 156 countries listed as UNWTO members, 6 associate members (Aruba, Flemish Community of Belgium, Hong Kong, Macau, Madeira and Puerto Rico), two observer members (Palestine and Holy See) and 400 affiliate members.


The program devised for this event was centered on UNWTO issues that were either tackled by regional commissions or as a whole organization through plenary sessions. In this edition of UNWTO’s general assembly, the issues must have been extremely internal, as the five-day event only had two media briefings and attended alone both times by UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai. The first media briefing was supposed to be attended by both tourism ministers from Zambia and Zimbabwe, Rifai claimed they were too engrossed in the discussions during the ministerial round table and could not leave. There was no explanation as to why the two ministers were again absent during the second media briefing. Both briefings, Rifai explained why this general assembly was “the best ever attended.” The most memorable parts of the programs were the opening and closing ceremonies, the re-election of Taleb Rifai and Colombia winning the vote to host the next assembly in Medellin.


For WTTC’s regional summit, issues tackled were specific to Asia as the region is being touted as the future “center of gravity” in global travel and tourism in which China, South Korea and Japan will all play major roles. In this regard, the Korea-centric session on Day Two of the summit best represented the ascent of the Asian region; or in this case, Korea, towards the top of the global travel and tourism hierarchy. South Korea’s medical tourism offers were heavily discussed as well as South Korea’s tourism achievements and future plans. The mostly upbeat session turned controversial, however, when the decline in the number of Japanese tourists visiting South Korea was brought up. Simply put, South Koreans bemoaned and are baffled by the double-digit decrease in inbound Japanese tourists. None of the attendees from Japan could explain the dip either.


JATA’s event had two specific targets--trade and consumers. The event was predominantly business-to-business transactions that followed a conventional appointment format wherein each buyer is allotted a specific time with exhibitors. One of the features of TABIHAKU 2013 was a first in JATA’s history--giving consumers the option of making travel bookings right from the exhibition floor. Attendees were also treated to a festival of cuisines from various parts of the world in the World Food Exhibition Hall. This was particularly refreshing to witness and take part on being that this aspect in itself outdid both ITB Berlin and London’s World Travel Market, which year-after-year serve the same bland selection of primarily hotdog or pizza on the exhibition floors.


Meanwhile, the conference element of TABIHAKU was rightly centered on how Japan can attract more tourists. Most significant of the sessions was “The Rapidly Growing Asian Market and Significance for Tourism Industry,” which was attended by UNWTO’s Rifai and WTTC chairman and president David Scowsill. Kudos to JATA for getting the two top bosses in one stage, as neither the general assembly nor the Seoul summit could claim they did the same.


Who is who?
UNWTO’s general assembly was attended by high-level governmental figures from member states, as well as three heads of states--Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, Zambia President Michael Sata and Malawi President Joyce Banda. WTTC and Sustainable Tourism-Elimination of Poverty (ST-EP) were among top tourism organizations that were in attendance.


Meanwhile, WTTC’s Seoul summit was attended by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who delivered the event’s keynote address, and South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-Won. WTTC’s formula of bringing industry experts in addition to its members, who are executives from some of the most influential travel and tourism companies in the world, was also executed properly.


JATA’s event, on the other hand, was mostly a trade affair and the highest government official who attended the event was Japanese Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Senior Vice Minister Yosuke Tsuruho. Joining the list of attendees were some ambassadors and embassy officials. Most notably, Valentino Cabansag, who is the Tourism Attache to Tokyo from the Philippine Department of Tourism. Cabansag was also among the panelists who participated in the media session during TABIHAKU Travel Showcase 2013.


Lessons and opportunities
UNWTO’s general assembly had a media center, but it is as if it was erected for the sole purpose of having one. The lone event that was held at the media center was the press briefing, which was shunned by Zambian Tourism Minister Sylvia Masebo and her Zimbabwean counterpart, Walter Mzembi. Sure, it had some computers and printers, but it did not function as a “working area” for the event.


There was also a very obvious absence of foreign journalists. Most of the ones I had come in contact with were either from neighboring countries or foreign journalists based in Zambia and Zimbabwe. This was a missed opportunity for the host countries because UNWTO’s general assembly is usually a platform for the host country to showcase itself in terms of what its travel and tourism industry can offer the world. By inviting journalists to go on pre- and post-conference tours, the host country gets the unique opportunity of generating buzz through write-ups from these tours and in doing so, gets to raise its competitiveness in the global marketplace.

In rare occasions, hosting the general assembly is a chance to shatter preconceived notions about the safety of traveling to the host country. Case in point: Colombia. Since hosting the general assembly in 2007, the country has not only shown that violence is a non-issue in the once beleaguered nation, but it managed to open up its travel and tourism industry in more ways than one. As a result of the UNWTO event, more carriers have signed on to fly to various parts of Colombia including Medellin, which was once considered as the “murder capital of the world.” It is no coincidence then why Colombia wanted to again host the next general assembly, beating out Cambodia in the process.


Unlike UNWTO, WTTC knows how to fully maximize the presence of its carefully selected press corps. Journalists can either attend the sessions or work in the media center, where a television showing the session in progress is provided. All the elements for a media center as a “working area for the event” were in place--computers, printers and an accommodating staff. The event also used technology wisely, utilizing Twitter as a way for delegates to communicate with speakers and presenters.


Seoul got to showcase itself via the WTTC event, as expected. Korean culture through food, fashion and KPop music, which is now considered the “driving force” in Korean Tourism, got a fair share of the limelight during the two-day event.


However, it was difficult not to notice two intriguing summit characteristics--there were way more men than women participants as either panelists or speakers and the absence of African delegates. Most notable from the very few women participants were Indonesian Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Mari Elka Pangestu, Korea's Tourism and Sports Ambassador Madame Dho Young-shim and Thea Chiesa Director (Head of Aviation, Travel and Tourism Industries for the World Economic Forum). And, having just come from a conference in Africa, I am cognizant of the goal to attract more Asian visitors to Africa. Given the economic shift towards the East, the summit could have provided African delegates great insights on how to lure this burgeoning market.


This WTTC summit also seemed robotic. Whether it was a conscious decision to have lesser audience participation or not, the summit was certainly not as dynamic because of it. This begs the question: Isn’t stirring dialogues one of the fundamental aspects of conferencing? After all, WTTC summits are not seminars; they are known as a platform for tackling relevant issues that significantly require some kind of discussion at some point.


Being the so-called conference baby of the three organizations, JATA certainly made a valiant effort in its aim to become the “third largest travel exhibition in the world,” after ITB Berlin and World Travel Market in London. To achieve this goal, JATA first needs to address this question: Are we the biggest travel exhibition in the region? If and when the answer is a concrete yes, then it makes sense to throw ITB Berlin and WTM into mix.


JATA was obviously limited in its budget in terms of inviting foreign journalists, there is no question that the five that were present were utilized accordingly. There were minor administration issues (such as the lack of an official press liaison and inefficiency of the two press briefings), but I am certain JATA is more than aware of its errors by now and will present an even better travel show next year.



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