Darren Rudd: a man with an AFTA mission

A man with an AFTA mission

Darren Rudd has taken the reins of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, and has big plans, not just for AFTA, but potentially for the wider tourism and travel sector. Rudd comes to travel after a variety of roles in other sectors, but the common thread is close relations with governments at all levels. Bruce Piper chatted with the Federation’s new CEO in his first official interview since taking on the role.

You might expect that someone who is not familiar with the nuances of the travel industry would take some time to get his feet under the desk before venturing out to engage with his new stakeholders. But that’s definitely not Darren Rudd’s style. In fact he hit the ground running, organising a meet and greet with travel agents in Sydney’s western suburbs on his very first day in the job, a Monday late in June. And it wasn’t just a one-on-one to learn about the industry — he took the bull by the horns by inviting the local MP to come along too.

But you’d probably agree that’s par for the course for someone who has agreed to head up an organisation representing an industry which was already being heavily disrupted — right in the midst of the huge global crisis presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. And that’s not to mention the fact that the job was vacant at all, after the abrupt departure of Rudd’s predecessor, Jayson Westbury, amid a firestorm of media controversy.

The AFTA Board worked quickly to recruit a replacement for Jayson, and although Darren Rudd is very different, it is clear that the Federation’s directors were seeking someone with a very particular skillset to help navigate these unendurably trying times. With the industry in crisis as its revenue streams go rapidly into reverse due to border closures and uncertainty about the future of travel, engagement with authorities across the board is vital. After all, the changes that COVID-19 has wrought have been implemented by governments, and it’s therefore important that officials are also crystal clear about the impact that coronavirus restrictions are having, whether it be border closures, gathering restrictions, health and safety requirements or even complete lockdowns. The Board is fully behind the new CEO, with Rudd meeting with Chairman Tom Manwaring prior to his appointment which was then endorsed unanimously by the full Brady Bunch screen of AFTA directors on a combined teleconference.

Although he’s new to the travel industry, AFTA’s new chief executive is no stranger to the halls of power. He has a strong pedigree in government relations, with his most recent role as Asia-Pacific Head of Corporate Affairs for Indian IT giant Tata Consultancy Services. He’s also held senior positions with other technology organisations including NBNCo and telecommunications business Alcatel-Lucent. And he’s not completely unfamiliar with the travel and hospitality sector, having started his career as a young man in hospitality IT in Hong Kong, designing hotel information systems that ran on IBM System 36 computers in the infancy of the digital age. “Instead of pulling beers in the UK like some of my peers, I was flying around Asia, dealing with hotel GMs and front office managers and learning all about the hotel sector and the interoperability, and interfaces to GDSs and everything from the ground up. So it’s a welcome back to the sector and back to the industry, in a way,” Rudd told travelBulletin.

Proximity to power

Darren Rudd’s rapid engagement with agents at the coalface alongside their local parliamentary representatives is a clear community-based strategy which aims to amplify the often forgotten voice of the travel agent, with the sector’s unique issues commonly drowned out by a wider chorus from tourism, aviation, hospitality, business events and even infrastructure stakeholders. “Whether we like it or not, AFTA is actually a political organisation,” he said, making pains to stress the importance of a bipartisan approach — in some ways a contrast to Jayson Westbury who had close ties to the Liberal Party, along with former AFTA Director Andrew Burnes who until recently was the party’s honorary Federal Treasurer.

“We have proximity to governments across the country of all flavours. We’re very non-partisan, so I’ve got a lot of relationships in the Labor Party and the Liberal Party at the same time,” Rudd noted.

Some of Rudd’s plans for AFTA include visiting every electorate in Australia to meet with together with MPs and local travel agents over the next two years. Rudd is pictured here with a map showing the electorates around the country.

This approach is reflected in a commitment to visit every single electorate in Australia over the next two years or so, interacting with local travel agents and their MPs. “This is the new lens through which we are looking at the world, we are going around to meet systematically, in a stable and repeatable fashion, our members in every electorate,” he said. In preparation for each meeting, the AFTA team gathers information about each area including the profiles of each local member travel agent, such as their history, how many people they employ and in the current environment what their JobKeeper arrangements are. This is matched up with local government information and demographics, and then meetings are arranged in conjunction with the local MP’s office.

The approach is so bipartisan that Rudd is determined to alternate one-for-one between Liberal and Labor politicians, in some cases meeting with the MPs at the physical travel agency locations, or alternatively gathering several AFTA members with the parliamentarian at a local coffee shop.

“What I want to do is get to meet the agents and get to know what their concerns are, but more fundamentally to have the MP in there understanding what their hopes, frustrations and anxieties are,” he said.

“When you aggregate that on scale you’re bringing a theme of messaging and realism on behalf of our members’ interests back into the party rooms of both parties, which obviously will hopefully help shape their respective policies,” the new AFTA CEO added.

To some, a two-year cyclical program of engagement in the current COVID-19 environment appears to be a long-term approach in the face of what is a much more urgent problem. But Rudd is also initiating a “more rapid work stream” involving a series of meetings with senior ministers and shadow ministers, including several planned one-on-ones in the AFTA office in Sydney. Rudd said he developed the approach based on his due diligence before taking the role, speaking with the offices of most of the tourism ministers around the country to evaluate the perception of travel agents and AFTA. “The reality is, be it structural change, be it borders, be it regulatory change, be it industry restructuring, there has to be proximity to government on a systematic basis in a non-partisan way,” he said.

Darren Rudd and MP for Greenway, Michelle Rowland (left), meeting with agents from Helloworld Travel Blacktown.

“What’s more, we’ve got to get the narrative package right — the number of travel agents, all the economic metrics, the impact they are having, the tax paid, all that stuff.” travelBulletin attended one of the community events in Sydney’s Cherrybrook last month, and there was a clear affinity between Rudd and local Member for the Berowra Electorate, Julian Leeser, who having dealt with Darren in some of his previous roles was effusive in his praise for the new AFTA CEO.

Other interests

Darren Rudd is no stranger to helping rescue a sector in crisis. He holds a number of directorships in a range of organisations, some of which are related to his former role with Tata, such as the India Australia Business & Community Awards and the Australia India Youth Dialogue. But he’s also been involved as a board member of the State Library of NSW Foundation, and was last year appointed for three years by the Federal Cabinet to the board of the Australia Council for the Arts, which oversees a range of government-backed grant programs for music, literature, community arts and cultural development, visual arts, theatre and dance. Others on the high-powered board include former Channel 7 Perth chief Mario D’Orazio, Leigh Carmichael who is Creative Director of Tasmania’s Dark Mofo festival, and Aussie songstress Tina Arena AM.

During his earlier career in Hong Kong and China he also established an “art bank scheme” for Chinese art in Shanghai. And in the current context the connection to the arts and entertainment is very relevant, with Rudd saying the COVID-19 crisis had also wreaked “horrors” on that sector. “Because of the nuances of their pay and their contracts, they don’t get JobKeeper,” he said, with the Australia Council helping secure an incremental $250 million in funding to help support the industry through COVID-19. “There’s a lot of pain out there, a lot of pain,” he added. And there’s no doubt he’s aware of similar pain within the travel industry, where agents have not only had their income reduced to zero but have had to return moneys they have received from bookings in previous years, arguably making travel agents the most heavily impacted sector by COVID-19.

Peak body

Coming into the industry as a relative outsider has allowed him to have fresh eyes, with Rudd’s perspective highlighting the lack of a united voice from across the tourism and travel sectors. “It’s a very fragmented, acronym-driven industry,” he said, with bodies such as ATEC, ATIC, AAoA, CATO, CLIA, AHA, TTF, BECA, AAEA and more all vying separately for government attention. “Is there a need for a peak body overall, is there any value to that? I’m just floating the concept, as someone who’s new to the business,” Rudd said.

Rudd sees travel as lacking a united voice across the sector, with many organisations vying for government attention.

While denying he was focusing on such a body as one of his KPIs, Rudd’s fresh perspective and experience in government relations clearly highlights the attraction of such an approach. “Imagine if you corralled and focused the voice of the entire sector through one conduit,” he said. “There would be no minister who would deny a meeting or request.” While not specifically advocating for a designated peak body, the new AFTA CEO clearly believes there is a need for planned, organised collaboration across the entire travel and tourism sector “as we work on the industry as well as trying to survive within it”.

Interestingly similar sentiments have been expressed by several others recently, including APT chief Chris Hall, who in an interview on the popular Cruiseco podcast noted that the fragmentation of the various approaches to government through the COVID-19 crisis had not served the cruise and travel sector well in terms of special consideration in the coronacrisis. Similarly, Carole Smethurst from Bicton Travel in Perth lamented the lack of understanding of the plight of the industry in Western Australia after a meeting with the state’s Tourism and Small Business Minister Paul Papalia. “His total disdain for travel agents was obvious,” she said — despite WA’s push to boost tourism with a range of support initiatives for the aviation and accommodation sectors.

Change is coming, so let’s drive it

Although he’s a newcomer, Rudd is not naive about the scale of the crisis that the sector currently faces. “I think the travel industry will have to look at itself — and is looking at itself, by the way,” he said. “Transformation, be it personal or professional or organisational is just part of life. And this industry is going to be affected by change as well. So the key is to make sure that any change is done in a paced way and by design, not by default,” he said.

What the shape of that change will be, and where the travel industry will end up at the end of this crisis, is anyone’s guess.

“The government is already asking us what the interim phase — that being domestic travel only — looks like. How do travel agents repurpose to have more of an impact and share of that?” he said — not to mention the longer term impact of an extended closure of Australia’s international borders. However there are several items on the agenda, including the possibility that the widely distributed travel agency network across Australia could be used to deliver other government services. “This is all at a very early discussion phase, but the Government has asked us to look at it,” the AFTA CEO confirmed.

But after hearing the travails of travel consultants across Australia over the last month or so, Rudd is also upbeat about the prospects for the industry, which is pressing on despite the circumstances. “The passion that these travel agents have for what, in many cases they have done since they left high school, is phenomenal. So if there’s anything that’s going to get this industry through to the other side of this crisis it’s that raw passion,” he said.

And while there has been plenty of industry discussion, including in the pages of Travel Daily, over the outcome of the recent JobKeeper extension, Rudd said it was important that the industry present a united front to the wider community. “It’s my role to explain and educate the sector as to why we are taking a constructive tone of language and substance/style with government,” he said.

“Frankly we need to keep the door to government open, and to do that we need to be working with them constructively. Like a family, we may have strained and sometimes heated conversations on behalf of our members behind closed doors but we will publicly display accord and a solid working relationship,” he concluded.

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