By Louise Wallace

aftaaAs the saying goes – from little things, big things grow – and there couldn’t be a more fitting adage for the National Travel Industry Awards (NTIAs).

It’s taken the best part of a decade for the awards to become worthy of a calendar shuffle for over 1000 travel industry folk, and with last month’s gala maxing out Sydney’s Dockside Pavillion at 1220 attendees with a wait list of 300, it has evolved to become the most anticipated event on the travel industry calendar.

A far cry from the early days when the awards were tagged on the end of the AFTA annual conference with little more than a lectern and a bar tab, several hundred thousand dollars were poured into last month’s gala, along with months of planning and countless hours of preparation.

But the evolution hasn’t come easy.

As AFTA stalwart Mike Hatton recalls, the industry was slow to embrace the awards and it has been a struggle to the top for the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) which had a hard time winning the industry’s favour in the early days. According to Hatton – who held the federation’s reins for a decade from 1998 – AFTA was in bad shape when the national awards first emerged on the scene.

“I inherited a situation where there had been a lot of infighting about how AFTA was run, how money was being spent, and what the organisation was achieving. Member numbers had dropped to around 1200, and not many people got involved in the awards,” he told travelBulletin.

To be fair, the awards were in a very different shape when Hatton held the top post, with AFTA state branches each hosting their own gala every year. That all changed when they were shut down in 2000 and the awards were consolidated to a national event to cut costs for suppliers who were propping up the events in each state.

AFTA’s national conference – which had been the highlight of the year in the late 90s – was also scrapped at around the same time as attendance numbers dwindled from around 1000 to 100.

But as Hatton recalls, AFTA turned a corner when industry heavyweights including Flight Centre and Harvey World Travel finally warmed up to the organisation and pledged their support.

“The major change was in 2006 when all of the major operators became AFTA members. It wasn’t easy and we had to prove to them that the organisation had relevance and a voice, but we did eventually get them over the line,” he said.

“The focus shifted and everyone adopted an industry-wide approach rather than worrying about their own group. The conversation changed, attendance for the awards hit around 900 people, and we realised the real value of honouring others in the industry – it was a snowball effect from there.”

But while AFTA’s evolution continues, memories from previous NTIAs remain chiselled into the minds of many. And Hatton has seen his share of blunders, such as when the management company overseeing the NTIAs went broke six weeks out from the event and saw Stephen Lewis from Regent Four Seasons Hotels come to the rescue at the 11th hour, transferring the 600 pax event from the Gold Coast to Sydney.

And the industry has not forgotten the 2003 awards gala when emcee Ernie Dingo fell off the rails.
“He was the star attraction that night. He couldn’t pronounce the chairman’s name properly and we couldn’t work out if he had taken pills or drank too much scotch,” Hatton quipped.

Hatton has seen his share of “legless industry notables”, but he also singled out the 2001 awards as a stand out when dozens of Ansett staff turned up within days of losing their jobs following the iconic collapse. “It was a sombre event – 9/11 had just unfolded, followed three days later by the Ansett collapse, and yet the turnout from Ansett was astounding. We were all blown away,” he says.

But the NTIAs have matured somewhat since then. Not only in terms of numbers which have ballooned from several hundred attendees, but also in award categories which have more than doubled from 15 in the late 90s to 37 categories this year.

And according to regular NTIA podium finisher, Phil Hoffmann, the desire to win has exploded as the event continues to swell.

“The first couple [of NTIAs] I won, I used to play it down because I thought ‘that’s nice’. But later on when we missed out and saw how our opposition used it against us, we thought – hell, they are more perceptive of this than we think,” he says.

“We used to be very placid about the whole thing, conservative even. But now, a win earns you bragging rights, and everyone does it. If you don’t, you lose the opportunity.”

Competition is at the heart of the awards – that’s what makes a win so sweet. But the recognition doesn’t only buy 12 months of gloating from within the walls of the industry. According to Hoffmann, the awards also catch the eye of consumers – and therein lies the hunger to win.

“Initially you think it’s only your colleagues who care about these things, but the public is more observant than you think. When clients started to bring these things to our attention and saying things about the awards, that’s when I first realised its merit,” he says.

Hunter Travel Group managing director Brett Dann, whose group took out the top gong for best multi location travel agency for the second time running this year, shares much the same sentiment. He claims the award has not only lifted the morale of staff and improved the credibility of the brand, but also brought new business to the table. And in Dann’s case, the benefits are easily quantifiable.

“We recently won a new client who admitted that their decision to go with us came down to the award. We included the NTIA win on all of our marketing collateral, which the client then cross referenced on the AFTA website and then locked in the business because of the recognition,” he said.

“It is probably quite difficult to put the value of winning [an NTIA] into real terms, but let me put it this way – that account alone was worth over one million dollars.”

As the sheer size of the NTIAs continues to mount, so too do the requirements involved in the submission process. And many industry heavyweights pour more effort – and money – into preparing submissions than they care to openly admit. One national tourism office, which requested to remain anonymous, told travelBulletin that its marketing department puts weeks into preparing NTIA submissions, and countless hours into tweaking and refining the finished product.

Hunter Travel Group’s Dann also claimed that several days of work goes into each submission, while Spencer Travel managing director Penny Spencer noted that the NTIAs form a core part of the company’s annual business plan as the agency eyes off a number of award opportunities each year.

“Winning an NTIA helps in the request for proposal process and definitely gives you a competitive advantage. We ask clients why they choose us and a lot of the time they say ‘because you have won so many
awards, you must be good’,” Spencer says.

Hoffmann – whose business has taken out the coveted Best Travel Agency award almost a dozen times in the NTIA’s history – was more candid in his comments: “We have been lucky to win a number of awards, but there are absolutely people in the industry who care too much about the NTIAs which is worrying because it does detract from business.”

And as the selection process becomes more involved – requiring elaborate details on training, marketing, and even sustainable tourism practices – Hoffmann says NTIA submissions are eating up more time as the event gets bigger.

“The bottom line is that you can’t spend too much time on these things and take your eye off the ball of the actual business, especially when markets are tough. The NTIAs are a popularity contest of sorts, but June 30 – the end of financial year – is much more important … The bottom line figures don’t lie,” Hoffmann says.

His comments do bring into question the voting process which has been scrutinised from within the walls of the industry for favouring larger companies with healthy marketing budgets. And it’s no secret that some companies spend thousands of dollars on advertising to fish for votes.

“The recognition of the NTIAs is a great reward, but it is becoming ‘campaignish’ as the value of the awards increases. It’s clear that companies want to use an NTIA win to improve brand awareness, but there is a need for integrity to ensure the awards don’t only become controlled by voting numbers,” Hoffmann says.
AFTA chief executive Jayson Westbury concedes that some awards are driven by a “numbers game” because it’s simply not possible to assess all categories with a judging panel, particularly with suppliers.

“How would you have an airline come to front a judging panel? It’s a difficult proposition but there is no other way,” he says.

“Non judged categories are a popularity contest – most of the supplier categories are – but we don’t see the same companies win every year so it is not a major concern.”

Dousing any suggestions that the playing field is not level across the board, Westbury says the addition of more categories opens up the doors to more players in the event’s history. “The industry has diversified and adding more categories highlights the maturity of the awards. It’s a natural progression via feedback,” he says.

It’s a move that he says has been embraced by the industry, and clearly he is on the right track, with Spencer, Hoffmann and Dann agreeing in unison that it adds to the weight of the awards. “The awards are fairer with more categories; it doesn’t dilute the value of a win at all. It’s great to get more people involved,” Hoffmann says.

However, the move to introduce a mandatory ATAS requirement for all nominations has still failed to gain favour of some industry naysayers who claim it forces the industry to take part in the scheme. Westbury has stood his ground and has no plans to ease the requirement for future NTIAs.

“A few people are shitty about [the mandatory ATAS requirement], but in a deregulated environment it is a critical part of elevating standards – especially with what we have seen go on over the past few months. It hasn’t detracted from the calibre of nominations, the number of nominations, or the number of people who have voted,” Westbury says.

He is clearly confident that the NTIAs has legs for the future, and while the two-year contract with Dockside Pavilion means attendance numbers will be capped at around 1200, Westbury has made no secret of his hopes to take the figure to two thousand when the event moves to the larger International Convention Centre (ICC) Sydney in 2017.

“Popularity is rising and the industry will come [to the awards] when we have the ability to move into a bigger venue. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter, but we want a venue that will allow us to grow and the momentum is at the ICC,” he said.

Time will tell if the 2000 target is still out of reach, but as far as Mike Hatton is concerned, the current state of play is nothing short of a success: “The NTIAs have grown to become the highlight of the year and we would never have dreamed about having 1400 people hoping to attend in the old days. It’s good to see that all of the people from outside the tent in those days have come on board and everyone is on the same team.”

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