NTIA’s early days
By Geoff Brooks
The National Travel Industry Awards program may never have marked its quarter century of birthdays this year had it not overcome a pitched battle in its early years between AFTA and my former company, Multimedia Creations, a communications and marketing consultancy.
Although it was a bottle of perhaps not so high quality red shared between my late mate and then managing editor of Traveltrade, Ian Marshman, just before Christmas 1992 that inspired the NTIA idea, its success is down to the support of some of the most iconic figures in the industry.
It is the collective support and vision of these people to whom the industry owes its thanks for NTIA.
Bottle of red completed and being in entrepreneurial mode, Ian and I signed a contract. Not literally, but with Ian’s simple words: “I’ll tell Woolley we’ve done the deal, so he has to support it.” The person to whom he referred was, of course, Michael Woolley, publisher of Traveltrade, then one of the industry’s two major trade publications.
It wasn’t the first time the diplomatic Mike found himself sandwiched in what would emerge as a politically charged battlefield. We’ll get to that later. Suffice to say, I had the ‘media deal’ in the bag for the awards night.
At this juncture, it is appropriate to note our first approach to AFTA. At that time, AFTA only had a state-based awards program. I offered the association a free category sponsorship. No deal.
Rather than ‘get with the program’, AFTA’s John Dart took the view that we were essentially usurpers and had no place in commercialising industry awards. He may have had a point, but we did anyway and our next sponsor was therefore carefully targeted.
We confirmed our first key sponsor: Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner jumped at the chance to sponsor a category in a program that would bloody the nose of AFTA. At that time, Flight Centre was the upstart retail group reportedly excluded from AFTA membership by John Dart due to his association’s dislike of Flight Centre’s business model.
I knew that with Flight Centre’s involvement secured, the support of industry suppliers would tumble into place.
Next into the fray was young Ansett marketing up and comer, Geoff Dixon. He wasn’t going to settle for second best and signed up for naming rights sponsorship for three years. We were on a roll. For the sake of name dropping, I’ll name the dominoes that dropped into place very quickly: Hertz’ John Butler, Avis’ Russell Butler, P&O’s Colin Fossey, Qantas’ John Borghetti, and iconic Sydney hotelier, Ted Wright. Ted always had an eye for publicity and couldn’t resist jumping in with the Sydney Regent (now Four Seasons) as the awards venue. In fact, in the decade that I ran NTIA, it was held seven times at the Regent.
With NTIA we also decided to up the ante with the quality of hosts, entertainment and audiovisual. It was 1993, but we weren’t quite prepared to forgo the excesses of the 80s.
Our first host was Ian Leslie, a highly respected journalist and founding presenter on 60 Minutes. Ian was interesting to work with. He’d turn up at the hotel and immediately ramp up the bill by booking himself into the Regent’s business centre all day, so he could retype all the presentation notes in 24pt font and not have to wear glasses.
Despite blowing our budget he was a great presenter until one night in 1995, when P&O had one of those gastro outbreaks that meant returning to Sydney and disembarking all its passengers. As the cruise operator’s representative arrived at the podium to present an award, Ian reverted to 60 Minutes mode asked the poor guy whether they had got to the bottom of the cause of the gastro.
James Bowyer, then CEO at Hertz and a client of mine, was due up next and leaned over to my table to anxiously ask what his question was likely to be. That was the last year we used Ian.
The next few presenters were an eclectic bunch. Channel 10 sports presenter Tim Webster followed Ian. Catriona Rowntree from Getaway was our first move to glamour. She hosted for three years until we held our first Melbourne event.
It coincided with the Spring Carnival and the Crown Palladium was decked with brightly coloured flowers. Aligned with the theme, I hired family friend and then leading racing commentator, Bryan Martin, to host it. I told him we needed to keep it moving. He did. When he hit the podium the gates opened and they were away. One presentation after the other. All ushered through racing style in about 40 minutes. Plenty of time for dancing and drinks.
Naomi Robson and Suzie Wilks followed, introducing a somewhat different pace and style to the event.
NTIA also cracked the mould in 1994 by launching the first online voting system. To be honest it wasn’t really online as we know it now. The internet had been invented but not deployed. Our online voting system was programmed by TIAS, then a commonly used reservations system that preceded Sabre, Galileo and others.
Meanwhile, back in Sydney, AFTA’s brains trust had decided to set up in opposition. Their first move was to copy all our awards categories with our ‘XXX of the Year’ tags. I sought legal advice on whether we had any prospects of challenging what I believed was theft of our intellectual property.
Jack Scanlon’s (of Scanlon Carroll) wise counsel to me was “unless you’ve got the pockets of Kerry Packer, you’ve got no chance of challenging this in court. These things are usually won through PR. We just provide the ammunition.” Lucky I was a PR bloke.
I sent AFTA’s first BDW legal response to Ian Marshman to publish in Traveltrade. Transparency was good. Despite the challenge, AFTA continued with its inaugural program in 1994.
Early in 1995, Mike Woolley rang me out of the blue. “Are you going to the AFTA meeting with all the sponsors on Tuesday week?” I was unaware of it and Mike continued to inform me that John Dart had called a meeting of all the awards sponsors to “sort the awards programs out”.
“That’s interesting, Mike,” I responded. “I’ll tell you what, don’t say anything and just go to the meeting.” I still think me walking totally uninvited and unexpected into that meeting was a career highlight.
“I think you left me off the invitation list John”, I said as I sat down. It was one of the few meetings I ever attended where no one really said anything before leaving.
Ultimately, John Dart moved on from being CEO, but the battle over intellectual property continued. The game changer was the arrival of Susan Lenehan as AFTA CEO.
We had a plan but the challenge was persuading the increasingly nervous Mike Woolley that he should declare AFTA morally bankrupt in his regular column and, in particular, in the edition published in Lenehan’s first week in office. Mike reluctantly agreed to pen the words.
Being an ex-politician and former South Australian government minister, Susan was quick to understand that moral bankruptcy and industry associations are not naturally sustainable bed fellows. One of her first acts was to summon the principal of her event management contractor, Darryl Washington, and I to a small meeting room at Melbourne Airport — a sort of FIFO negotiation.
By the end of the meeting, we’d essentially agreed to merge the awards. It was game over. The AFTA National Travel Industry Awards as we know them now were born.
This resulted in a tendering process for the trade media deal, with Ian McMahon trumping rival Marshman to align Travel Week (now Business Publishing Group’s travelBulletin) with AFTA-NTIA, an association preceded by Travel Week‘s sponsorship of the rival AFTA awards.
Of course, the awards under my guidance evolved on a much different trajectory than they did under AFTA, as I offered fewer awards. Under AFTA they have emerged, I think appropriately, as the industry’s leading program for recognising excellence.
I sold off various bits of my business in 2002, including my half share of AFTA-NTIA through negotiation with an AFTA CEO for whom I had great respect, Mike Hatton. I knew that in his hands, the program would prosper, as it has.