THE shock resignation of AFTA CEO Jayson Westbury last month has come at the worst possible time for the Australian travel industry, which has been the sector of the economy hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. With no clear succession plan, the “hibernation” of the AFTA Chargeback Scheme and no income for the organisation for the next year after suspending its ATAS and membership fees as well as NTIA, what is the future for the Federation? Steve Jones investigates.

It was an ignoble and untimely end.

A momentary lapse, a thoughtless choice of words — spoken out of sheer frustration — and the writing was on the wall for Jayson Westbury.

After a near 13-year spell as Chief Executive, the abrupt departure of AFTA’s action man was both a personal calamity and industry catastrophe. The fact his exit involved travel’s despised adversary, A Current Affair, only added to the resentment and deep sense of injustice felt by the agents he represented. Many took to social media to vent their anger, some blaming ACA for continually prodding Westbury and the industry, while others berated the board for failing to stand by their man.

Yet quieter voices accepted that AFTA Chairman Tom Manwaring and the Board were left with little choice. Industry leaders, CEOs, individuals in positions of power and authority simply cannot suggest a women — whoever that woman may be — deserves physical abuse and expect to remain employed.

Manwaring expressed “deep regret” at the unpalatable corner the Board was forced into, but added: “The Board has a clear charter — to act in the interests of AFTA and our members at all times”.

Nevertheless, it has hugely unsettled AFTA at a time when the industry needs it most. And far from acting in the interests of members, critics of the decision, delivered soon after Westbury’s brain-snap went public, argue it has deprived them of their most vocal and doggedly determined campaigner.

So what now for AFTA? No one person is larger than the organisation for which they work. But the feeling is inescapable; Westbury was the beating heart and public face of AFTA. He opened doors in Canberra, had links with many trade associations and injected an energy that even his detractors could not question. Will that energy, and the momentum generated over the past decade, vanish with him?

Gil McLachlan, Chief Executive of McLachlan Travel Group, went so far as to suggest Westbury was, indeed, irreplaceable.

“His performance in all areas related to government was extraordinary, and his passion for the industry was conspicuous,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine anyone else living up to his standard in that area.”

Nevertheless, the praise was mixed with frustration that AFTA and Westbury allowed themselves to be cornered by A Current Affair, with McLachlan believing the industry had been “let down” during its time of greatest need.

“Whether you blame the Board or the CEO, or both, the industry was taking a beating and this interview was intended to put the record straight. Instead it buried us. Has AFTA engaged a PR company to guide us through this crisis? Surely a PR advisor would have said fronting up is wise, but to keep away from so-called investigative programs where ambushes are routine.”

Flight Centre Managing Director and AFTA Board member Graham Turner agreed that Westbury’s tenure had to be cut short to avoid lasting damage to AFTA’s image. Travel agents have already been portrayed as Covid-19 villains amid the refunds saga. Retaining the services of a leader being condemned for unacceptable language was a risk AFTA was not prepared to take.

“Jayson does occasionally stray but this was a different case,” Turner told travelBulletin.

“It was suggested to him that this would be the best outcome and in deference to him he did not argue. It really would have done a fair bit of damage to AFTA itself [had he remained].”

Turner, too, questioned whether someone of his calibre can be adequately replaced, predicting the remit of the role could be narrowed, particularly in a post-Covid world where every organisation will be financially constrained.

“I’d say Jayson is irreplaceable in the role that he played. Everyone is in a world of pain so there probably needs to be a bit of a change in what AFTA is and what it stands for. There is unlikely to be as many resources so the role probably needs to be narrowed and become more specific. Certainly representing the industry in Canberra is very important and that, I suspect, will be the focus.”

Since Covid-19 brought the world to a grinding halt, Westbury has continually been in the ears of politicians, scrapping for whatever assistance he could get to guide agents through the crisis. According to South Australia-based Phil Hoffmann the absence of Westbury’s lobbying is a concern.

Hoffmann also questioned the need to remove the CEO, a view he said was shared by colleagues.

“It was a sad day. I thought they could have rapped him over the knuckles and suspended him for a month,” he said. “Not just me, but other colleagues felt it was severe. It has cost us momentum because he was in full stride.”

Particular anxiety surrounds the extension of the JobKeeper allowance for the travel industry. With travel widely expected to be the last industry to recover from Covid-19, the September cut off for JobKeeper will come way too early for many struggling firms.

“Jayson was doing some terrific stuff and fighting for JobKeeper to be extended. September is looming so we need someone to be knocking on doors and I am a little nervous of them finding the right person to maintain momentum in what will probably be the hardest year the industry will ever face.”

Hoffman said he expected Manwaring to pick up the pieces. “You need someone talking to the Minister for Tourism and to Scott Morrison. We need to make sure we are getting that representation.”

What does not appear in question is AFTA’s value, and very existence, within the industry eco-system. Senior industry players unanimously voiced their support, suggesting its efforts during the current crisis alone have demonstrated the need for an independent trade body to protect the interests of travel agents.

McLachlan also pointed to AFTA’s lobbying and marketing efforts, but identified the oversight of ATAS — a scheme he previously opposed — as its key contribution.

“I disagreed with Jayson on deregulation of the industry but now realise he got it spot on,” he said. “AFTA is the only option we have for any degree of industry unity. I see it as having an important role.”

While fearful of the vacuum left by Westbury’s departure, Travel Counsellors Regional Managing Director Kaylene Shuttlewood said AFTA has pulled the industry together “more than I have ever seen before”.

“The webinars and information flows have been excellent. The past few weeks have demonstrated why we are part of AFTA,” she said. “But whoever comes in [to replace Westbury] will need to hit the ground running. They won’t have the luxury of a long handover. Everyone is swimming very deep and we need a captain quickly.”

It is also clear that Covid-19 will throw up numerous challenges as travel adapts to a new reality. The chief concern — and there are many — is how airlines will react.

While Flight Centre and perhaps Helloworld have direct lines of communication with airlines around the world, and possess the muscle to seek an audience with global carriers, smaller independent retailers would simply be cut adrift without a trade body to represent them. In a post-pandemic, cost-cutting world, where airlines are likely to take another hard look at their trade distribution, such support from industry associations could be critical, Shuttlewood said.

“Smaller IATA agents in Australia wouldn’t have much sway with an airline’s distribution head office on the other side of the world so they have to band together. That might mean AFTA, ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) and ASTA (American Society of Travel Advisors) all coming together to present a united front to airlines.”

Penny Spencer, Managing Director of Sydney-based Spencer Travel, added her voice to the pro-AFTA lobby, arguing it has a role to play “in everything that is happening now and into the future”.

In particular, a likely confrontation with GDSs over cancelled segments and airlines reducing overrides will both require a coordinated response.

“The New Distribution Capability may also raise its ugly head again as airlines pull out of GDS agreements,” Spencer warned. “We need AFTA to be our voice along with the agency groups. We are going to need all the help we can get.”

Flight Centre’s Turner added: “I think everyone accepts that we need a body like AFTA to represent the travel agent sector”.

Despite concerns about the immediate future following Westbury’s premature exit, Hoffmann echoed Turner’s assessment, believing the wealth of experience of the board, coupled with the professionalism of the staff, will enable AFTA to regroup.

Flight Centre and Helloworld, meanwhile, both support AFTA and neither will want the organisation to lose direction, he said. Helloword Chief Executive Andrew Burnes declined to comment for this article.

“It’s when you have these world issues that AFTA can shine,” Hoffmann said. “In the last 12 weeks a lot of the smaller members have really appreciated the work AFTA has been doing on their behalf. That’s why I was disappointed to lose that momentum because it can take a while to build. We’ve had to fight so many wholesaler collapses, some of them overseas, and to have AFTA pulling people together has been fantastic.”

And pulling together is exactly how AFTA Chairman Tom Manwaring sees the immediate and longer term future for the Federation.

While dealing with his CEO’s misdemeanour, and the fallout from it, has been “extremely difficult”, particularly given the industry’s desperate plight, Manwaring insisted AFTA has never been about one man.

He may have been the public, vociferous face of AFTA, but picking up where Westbury left off has been less unsettling than some may believe, Manwaring claimed. Many board members have well-established and top level contacts in Canberra, and the staff who turn the wheels in Market Street have strong credentials, he said.

“No organisation should be about one person,” Manwaring told travelBulletin. “That doesn’t take anything away from Jayson’s outstanding record, but the real benefit of a quality CEO is that if they step away at any time the organisation gets stronger and people step up. That is exactly what is happening now. Jayson was the front guy who did a superb job but behind him was an excellent team.

“The board is stepping up, I am stepping up and the office is stepping up. We are all taking on extra responsibilities, and that’s fine. Everyone has picked up the ball. The ministers in Canberra, the Treasury, the Reserve Bank, we’ve all picked that up and are dealing with them on a daily basis. And this follows on from the excellent work that we did in February and March. This isn’t something that has happened in the last week.”

Manwaring has, unsurprisingly, taken the lead in key discussions, in conjunction with AFTA’s strategy head Courtney Duddleston, AFTA’s Acting GM of Operations.

Meanwhile, the recruitment process for a new CEO is expected to be completed in late July, with Manwaring anticipating the remit will be a little different from Westbury’s. Replicating his strengths in Canberra, with state governments and tourism bodies will be a critical requirement, he said, while developing a close relationship with IATA will also be imperative.

“For the first year or two the focus will be on Australian issues and the membership,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it will stay narrow in focus as the new normal takes hold.”

Manwaring conceded that, like every organisation the world over, AFTA will need to prioritise in the aftermath of the coronavirus epidemic. The waiving of membership fees in 2020 — which, together with accreditation fees, pulled in $2.16m in 2019 — will leave a sizeable hole in its revenue. The cancellation of the national awards will further hit income.

Yet a decision made in the 2019 financial year now looks inspired and, according to Manwaring, provided AFTA with financial security.

“The forefathers of AFTA bought the office in Pitt Street which the current board decided to sell at the absolute peak of the market,” he explained. “That was good management, but also luck. We sold it for a large sum and that will ensure AFTA has a solid financial footing in the coming years.

“Many not-for-profit organisations around the world are in dire straits, so we are fortunate. Waiving the fees will clearly diminish a positive result but we are still financially solid.”

Nevertheless, spending will be curtailed, with high profile — and expensive — TV marketing campaigns of the past two years likely to be dialled back.

Predictably, Manwaring was bullish about AFTA’s future, and insisted large companies represented on the board — Flight Centre, Helloworld and CTM — have been “nothing but supportive”. In addition, despite the heavyweight nature of the board, he claimed each member has not lost sight of the “corner shop” agency.

“Don’t forget, many of them have come from small businesses. Flight Centre used to small,” Manwaring said.

He also singled out AFTA’s training and its role in unearthing “more qualified business people to lead travel businesses”.

According to Dennis Bunnik, Chairman of the Council of Australian Tour Operators, among the most valuable functions of a trade association is the ability to bring an industry together.

All CATO members, from the largest tour operators down to small destination specialists, are using the resources of CATO in equal measure during the current crisis, he said.

“An industry association provides independence and external credibility,” Bunnik added. “A company lobbying on its own is, in essence, just one company. An association lobbying for the entire industry is when you get results.”

It is a view shared by Manwaring, who said it was “critical that members stick with AFTA and get behind us so we can act with a single voice”.

“The stronger AFTA is as one voice for the industry, the more impact we will have in Canberra.

“We are pitching against thousands of businesses and organisations who, like us, are standing at the Treasury door. The only way we have a point of difference is if we continue to make headway through the formal processes and speak with a united voice.”

Unfortunately for all concerned, Jayson Westbury’s voice is no longer among them.