THE Australian Federation of Travel Agents once again has a Chief Executive Officer, with Dean Long taking up his new role last month. Long is no stranger to AFTA, having previously worked for the organisation for five years under the leadership of former CEO Jayson Westbury. But his return has seen him determined to place his own stamp on AFTA as it charts the way forward out of the pandemic. BRUCE PIPER sat down with him for his first official interview.

Two weeks into his new job as CEO of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, Dean Long is thoroughly relishing the challenge before him. And that’s good, because heading up an organisation which, like its members, has been thoroughly battered and bruised by COVID-19, will definitely not be business as usual – and significantly different to his previous stint at AFTA.

Long joined the Federation as Head of Public Policy and Strategic Partnerships in 2014, staying for just over four years. During that time, which now seems like a far-off memory of halcyon days, he was instrumental in industry deregulation, with his deep knowledge of the sector putting him in good stead to lead AFTA into the post-pandemic world.

The search for a new CEO began in April, after the shock departure of Darren Rudd who was himself in the role for less than 12 months, following the tumultuous resignation of Jayson Westbury just a couple of months after the country’s borders shut. With his previous experience at AFTA, Long was firmly in the sights of the Board committee searching for a replacement for Rudd, but as CEO of the Accommodation Association, was deeply entrenched in that organisation’s protracted merger with the Australian Hotels Association as well as growing the Accommodation Association to be a force in the employment services and advocacy space. The AFTA Board persevered, and in the end it became what looks to be a perfect match of experience and expertise.

He modestly downplays his obvious suitability to head AFTA, but did admit to travelBulletin that knowing travel is a key advantage.

“Moving on from the pandemic, we must have a wider focus. We have to be focused on support, but we also have to be focused on the members – and that means all of the members, from large corporations through to medium-sized businesses and small mum and dad operations.”

However Long is also keen to build on the legacy of his forerunners, noting the remarkable effort and resulting success achieved through AFTA’s grass-roots activation campaigns since COVID-19 reared its ugly head. Coming from the accommodation sector, he is well aware of the high regard – and perhaps disbelief – from other lobby groups, that travel agent-specific funding was forthcoming in the form of the COVID-19 Consumer Travel Support Program. For all of the scheme’s perceived shortcomings, the efforts of thousands of travel businesses to highlight their plight to politicians of all stripes across the country created a never-before-seen appreciation of the sector.

Direct advocacy by leaders such as Andrew Burnes and Graham Turner also meant the scale of the travel sector was understood across the spectrum, be believes.

The new AFTA CEO is absolutely determined to make the most of this new-found political position. “The industry has spent the last two years fighting to get to the front of the line. We can’t let that disappear. You don’t spend two years battling to get a cookie and then go ‘actually, we don’t need any more cookies’,” he said. There is a key opportunity to further entrench awareness of the travel industry in the minds of authorities, he added. “We need to make sure that the role of distribution in the traveller pathway is crystal clear in the minds of authorities. That’s not well understood in government, which is why certain suppliers [read major Australian airlines] appear publicly to have the monopoly on reopening roadmaps,” Long added.

“I’m hoping that travel agencies across the country are used to being weaponised, because they are really good at it and it has made a huge difference – and will continue to do so going forward,” he said.

Out of the starting blocks

With established global and local relationships, the Federation remains the peak body for the travel sector, Long stressed, with strong interest in and nominations from key travel businesses, tour operators and independent agents in the most recent Board election reinforcing AFTA’s industry position. With the pandemic seeing the organisation forced to scale back, just like the rest of the industry this provides an opportunity to rebuild better, Long believes – and thus one of the first things on his extensive agenda is a review of the Federation’s constitution, and the currently convoluted arrangements which govern membership.

With the move previously flagged by AFTA Chairman Tom Manwaring, a Board subcommittee is already looking at the issues around the document which, as Long admits, was developed in an era which could not have envisaged what the world of travel looks like today. “The constitution doesn’t really define who we represent. We do clearly define who we represent in the ATAS Charter, but not in the AFTA Constitution. What actually defines a travel agent? When those rules were written, the idea of a website that sells travel would not have fitted into the founding fathers’ definition of what a travel agent is – nor even the idea that you would have someone who is a travel agent or travel business which is not an IATA member.”

Dean Long with hotel industry leaders.

“Defining who we are, defining who we represent, and in some ways defining who we do not, will be a more powerful message on where we stand. We’re never going to directly represent aviation, airports and cruise companies, and nor should we, but we have always worked collaboratively with these suppliers. But probably, if you look at ATAS, we want to be representing every travel business that’s in the distribution system.” Everything appears to be up for grabs, but Long noted that ultimately such weighty decisions are in the laps of AFTA’s directors. “As the representatives of our members – our shareholders – their job is to put together a document which they believe will provide future growth opportunities for the organisation, but also ensure that existing stakeholders are able to access the products and services and support they are looking for,” he said.

And on that topic, the actual membership benefits provided by AFTA will also be under the microscope. “We have to get that right, especially in an era where money is going to be tight,” Long said. The disparate nature of AFTA’s member base makes that admittedly tricky. “We need to provide a value proposition for a Flight Centre, a Corporate Travel Management, OTAs like Webjet, as well as making sure we look after our historical membership and mum & dad operators. The product and service review is important because in the past we’ve really had a one-size-fits-all product mix, and now we’ll be a smaller, leaner organisation than we were pre-COVID. We can’t just add more products in, we’ve actually got to work out what we will continue to offer,” he said.

Long cited as an example the change in ATAS to a “monitor and support” mode through the pandemic. “That was a really clever move as we moved into fewer resources due to COVID – the organisation simply had to adjust what it was doing.” Going forward, support for agencies through the restart will be part of the focus. “We’re going to have to look at what that monitoring and support looks like, to support an agency through reopening as well,” he said. “AFTA has to provide an ROI for its whole membership going forward – that’s what we have to get right.”

The constitutional review is just one project, with Long also tasked with developing an overarching strategic plan for AFTA – backed up in turn by a financial and business plan for the organisation. He’s developed an initial “Roadmap to Sustainability” (pictured) with six pillars including advocacy and the constitutional/charter review.

Long’s six-point plan recognises the looming talent crisis in travel and tourism, with an aspiration to “ensure our industry regains its position as a positive, progressive and rewarding sector in which to work”. Based on his time at the Accommodation Association this is likely to be a well-fulfilled promise, with Long’s hospitality tenure seeing the organisation develop programs which each month produced hundreds of trained, qualified staff for the industry – each deployed with a generous government salary subsidy. The initiative also provided a welcome diversification of the organisation’s revenue stream – something that would likely come in handy for AFTA too.

He believes the industry should be marketing the long-term benefits of a travel career – where people who enter the industry could end up, not just where they start. “To fill that skills gap both informal and formal training is going to be really important,” Long said. “Travel consultants have unique skills in moving goods and services – they are actually experts in supply chain management. We need to take the global leading expertise that we have – which is why we have the highest agency and travel business penetration in the world – and make sure that it is recognised by the Government as a really critical skill set.”

Definitely not back to the future

Something that has already surprised the new AFTA CEO on his return to the travel sector has been commentary around the former Travel Compensation Fund, with some harking back to Government regulation as a way forward from the pandemic. Nothing could be farther from the truth, according to Long, who believes industry self-regulation through a viable, established and credible accreditation scheme is absolutely vital.

Dean Long explaining the intricacies of ATAS in 2017.

Despite the agency closures forced by the pandemic, things would likely have been much worse under the former TCF regime, he insists. “Imagine if you were a travel agency in the pandemic with a couple of hundred thousand dollars tied up in a TCF bond that you couldn’t access. None of the agencies that were forced to put that money in would have received any benefit from it – and as some suppliers ceased trading would probably have been asked to contribute more,” he said, suggesting that as the industry looks back it will be increasingly clear that deregulation was an important reform. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to trade through [the pandemic] as well as what we have. And part of that now is that coming out of COVID-19, we need to make sure that industry self-regulation is as strong as it needs to be to ensure that we don’t get re-regulated, we don’t tie up millions and millions of dollars in travel agency businesses’ money in a Government scheme into which we have no say and no oversight.”

Another factor on AFTA’s radar is the evolution of the overall travel sector in the brave new world. “Our members are great at selling travel; what’s going to be interesting for a few of the businesses is what life is going to be like in a super low commission environment,” he said. “Suppliers have definitely taken the opportunity of COVID to slash all that, and it’s probably never coming back,” Long added.

The biggest picture

The new AFTA CEO also has a vision to build and sustain sector-wide collaboration, with the aim of ensuring travel providers and intermediaries are recognised for their economic contribution both in Australia and across the region. That would see the Federation entrench and renew its position on key regulatory committees, reinforcing the distribution system’s key role in the passenger journey. “We’ve always been embedded with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and consular programs, we were the trusted voice to provide a counterpoint to what suppliers like airlines or cruise companies were saying about how things would work in practice,” he said.

One example from his former AFTA tenure was Long’s involvement on the committee that eliminated the outbound passenger card for travellers departing Australia. For those with not-so-long memories, the information on this document included specifying what you did for work. Underlining the futility of this red tape requirement, Long recalled that “my favourite part was that, according to the data collected, the two most prevalent occupations in Australia were ‘porn star’ and ‘secret agent'”.

Dean Long is clearly no stranger to the corridors of power – and as AFTA Chairman Tom Manwaring said when announcing his appointment back in July, “we couldn’t have asked for a better choice…given his background across key sectors, his extensive experience within AFTA, and his expertise and networks across government at all levels”.

Although he has a very full dance card already, the youthful Long clearly has the energy and appetite to drive the Federation forward. The post-COVID world of opportunity beckons for the organisation, and Dean Long seems ready, willing and able to grasp it with both hands.

AFTA’s initial “Roadmap to Sustainability” includes ongoing advocacy and a review of the AFTA constitution and charter.

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