Are we really all in this together?
By Bruce Piper
The catch cry for the Australian travel industry over the last 12 months (yes – it’s nearly a year since this s**tstorm started) has been “we’re all in this together”. There’s been a wide variety of support from one another, and it has been absolutely amazing to see how people have stepped up to look after their colleagues with free training, webinars, updates, tips, encouragement and more.
However unfortunately this spirit of camaraderie does not appear to have disseminated to some of the higher echelons of the industry, as evidenced by a clear lack of communication and coordination in our increasingly desperate lobbying efforts. This has particularly been crystallised in the last month or so, as the looming precipice of JobKeeper ending approaches and the reality of a world without this vital lifeline has started to hit home.
Even this week the lack of a unified voice has been clearly apparent. On Tuesday night AFTA gave us a heads up about the launch of its whimsically-named “Travelsectorkeeper” survey, an 11th hour push for yet more data which will be used “to provide an objective measure of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the sector”. That same evening those tireless, amazing Western Australian travel agents Jo Francis and Christine Ross-Davies (who I am officially anointing as the “WA Wonder Women”) got in touch asking us to highlight new resources for a last-ditch lobbying effort. And that all happened the same day that CATO Chairman Dennis Bunnik was in Canberra for meetings with Tourism Minister Dan Tehan.
While all this activity is amazing and admirable, and I don’t for a second want to imply that it’s not being done with the best of intentions, it just seems curious to me that there appears to be so little communication and coordination across the industry to come up with a single, simple message.
Surely it would be easier for everyone involved – not to mention the politicians who are being bombarded on all sides – if a unified “ask” could be nutted out between all of us and then presented along with appropriately resourced research and statistics.
The questions in the AFTA survey, which is still open for submissions at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/JKSurveyFeb21, are further evidence of the fragmented approach. Although the “Travelsectorkeeper” name of the poll appears to imply that it’s seeking support for the entire industry, the very first question stipulates that “to qualify for this survey you should be an owner or a store manager” – and if you select “other” because you’re running a non-travel agency business then there’s no opportunity to complete the rest of the survey. Of course AFTA is focusing on its core constituency, but the creditable efforts of CEO Darren Rudd to get in front of our political decision makers could surely be only improved by adding the weight of the rest of the sector. We all understand that we are part of an integrated, complex ecosystem, so it’s a shame that we don’t appear to be lobbying like one.
Although not widely discussed because “we’re all in this together,” to me it also appears that throughout the pandemic there have been some deep fractures between all of the various groups seeking assistance for the industry. CATO’s well-meaning industry reform proposals back in August (Travel Daily 26 August 2020) were reportedly met with a decidedly frosty response from some other parts of the industry who felt blindsided by the way they were announced – a detente which remained in place until very recently. Just before Christmas AFTA confirmed there were “deep flaws” in the $128 million Consumer Travel Support Program grants for agents, but when the highly anticipated scheme was first announced with a fanfare, anyone who highlighted these discrepancies was, I’m sure, told to just be grateful and not to make a fuss. Facebook groups set up to support the whole industry explicitly excluded others who were trying to make a difference, while other efforts by some to support the sector were criticised. I could go on – but let me also admit that I am also probably guilty of not being fully supportive of every single initiative.
This week, as the rubber hits the road for the final stages of a push for ongoing support after the end of March, we continue to see a lack of a cohesive message – although we should all take comfort in the fact that the various proposals circulating appear to be at least heading in a similar direction – that perhaps the Government could provide funding for businesses which continue to suffer significant downturns of perhaps 70% or more, while allowing the rest of the economy to “graduate” from JobKeeper.
During a webinar this week in which I participated with Dennis Bunnik, one of the wise audience members described the situation in the IT industry where groups representing parts of the sector gathered together in a “Council” which would then have a single spokesperson to take messages to those in authority. Couldn’t we have something similar for our industry – perhaps the “Travel Industry Council of Australia”, with members from AFTA, CATO, CLIA and more, in fact anyone passionate about our future – to come up with a unified voice?
Perhaps we’ll be able to get this in place in time for the next pandemic.