Lights shine again for travel

The first National Travel Industry Awards (NTIAs) to take place in three years is almost upon us, and this Saturday Australian travel professionals and suppliers will formally shake off the legacy of the pandemic to celebrate the industry’s huge night of nights at Sydney’s International Convention Centre.

SPEAKING with AFTA CEO Dean Long only days out from the festivities, he tells travelBulletin the NTIAs will prove to be a “pivotal” juncture in the travel industry’s recovery, one that his organisation is immensely proud to help bring to life.

“What we’ve managed to do in the shortest possible time is have an awards night which builds on the excellence of the NTIAs over the past few years and creates an event that celebrates excellence in survival, excellence in recovery and creates an opportunity for the industry to come together and celebrate still being here,” Long says.

“We’re going to be the largest travel event in Australia with travel professionals in the room and the fact that AFTA is able to facilitate that on behalf of the travel industry is something I’m really proud to have delivered within the first 12 months of my tenure.”

AFTA CEO Dean Long and Singapore Airlines’ GM Agency Sales Australia Greg McJarrow seal the 2022 NTIA sponsorship deal.

Taking place in front of a sold-out crowd of 1,200 attendees, Long says this year will be unique for many reasons, but perhaps most notably because of the mix of emotions in the room given the turbulent last couple of years.

“The mood is genuinely going to be excitement but I think there are also going to be tinges of varying emotions, there’s going to be a sense of relief by some, there will also be a sense of normality back in the industry.

“We had around 11,000 clients write to us in 100 words or less (through a News Corp collaboration) about the role that their travel agent played in helping them secure refunds and get them home from COVID, when those stories come out on the night they’re going to be powerful moments that remind people that even during our darkest days, most of our lights shine the brightest they’ve ever been.

“When you get away from the headlines and you talk to people who have booked through us and work in partnership with suppliers to get people back to Australia, to secure their refunds, those moments are going to be when we realise that we were hugely successful in keeping Australians safe,” Long says.

AFTA Chairman Tom Manwaring from Express Tickets with National Party MP Barnaby Joyce and AFTA CEO Dean Long.

And while AFTA has clearly been the driving force behind organising and reshaping the event, Long said the group has been conscious of making sure the NTIAs are about more than just branding, labelling the night an opportunity for travel to set aside any differences and enjoy a true moment of industry unity.

“The NTIAs have been the longest running awards nights that transcend the groups of brands and AFTA has made really conscious decisions to reinforce that at this year’s event, the AFTA name is not included on the logos this year for example, and it’s about creating that sense of place, that every year we put down our commercial lenses and we come together to celebrate what makes us great,” Long explains.

“Not having AFTA front and centre is testament to where we are as an organisation, that we are about the industry and we want to make sure that these things continue and collaboration and industry is above politics – that’s what we’re focused on.”

The NTIAs will also be a forum this year to highlight the strength and power of the Australian Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS), with AFTA this year introducing the ATAS champions lounge where finalists, winners and employees of ATAS businesses will be able to network, while enjoying exclusive Singapore slings. In this area, the winners will celebrate with their teams and speak exclusively to Travel Daily for our live videos.

AFTA CEO Dean Long is hopeful this year’s NTIAs will further reinforce the value of booking through Australian Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS) intermediaries.

AFTA has been examining ways to enhance the promotion of ATAS in recent months and solidify the program’s value proposition in the minds of consumers, most recently partnering with News Corp to mobilise thoughts among Aussies about why having an industry quality standard in the travel industry is important.

A competition ran across News’ Escape travel publishing platform, inviting consumers to nominate their favourite ATAS-accredited travel agency, with entrants in the running to win major prizes sponsored by Singapore Airlines, Avalon Waterways, Virgin Australia and Royal Caribbean.

“News Corp has been incredible, not just with this campaign but right the way through COVID in general, their willingness to support our industry has been unwavering,” Long says.

“We’re really proud to be able to partner with them to get ATAS front and centre in celebrating that in the consumers’ minds…we need to continue to improve consumer recognition of ATAS, what winning an NTIA means and what clients and consumers should be looking for in award-winning travel businesses.

“ATAS is in a really strong position at the moment there’s no doubt about that, the recent changes that we’ve made in the latest review really sets it up for success moving forward and we will be announcing a new committee, not just made up from the AFTA board, that will have ownership and direction of ATAS policy settings to make sure that it’s fit-for-purpose for the entire industry and making sure there’s multiple voices from industry.”

Another big change this year has taken place in the sponsorship ranks, with Singapore Airlines coming on board as the NTIAs major naming rights partner, a move Long believes heralds a “new era” for the NTIAs.

“As we move through into this new commercial environment, we need to be working with partners that recognise the value of travel distribution and the value is not just based on one criteria, it was a competitive process between a number of businesses to be that major sponsor.

“Sitting down with Singapore Airlines about the role and how they value the trade and how they communicated varying changes to the way that were working with trade, whether it be positive or negative, this was one of key criteria the AFTA board and myself used when reviewing the choices,” Long said.

“But even when you move through gold and Silver sponsors, we’re looking at companies that have valued travel distribution and travel intermediaries, and have wanted this night to be successful.

“We may not agree with every commercial decision that these companies make and we may not always be in alignment, but there is a genuine commitment to work together to have a successful and vibrant travel distribution sector so that’s what we’re really focused on.”

The 2022 NTIAs are being generously sponsored by suppliers from right across the Australian travel sector.

The night itself has also  been revamped to shine a light on individuals and companies via several new categories to keep everyone happy in the one big tent of travel, with around 20% of the industry opting to get involved in the voting process.

“To me that is amazing,” Long says.

“For our most outstanding categories, the score differentials between the people that came in first and second was the tightest we’ve ever seen and that really is a testament to the time and energy a lot of people put into their applications.

“It’s just one of the things that makes made me so happy when I saw these really close results, it means that people spend the time and energy to be successful.

But perhaps the most important news update for guests is that the after party is alive and well, with attendees not having to line up at another venue to get in and some amazing live music planned to keep people entertained well into the late hours.

“You can just keep on enjoying the evening, celebrating with the finalists, celebrating with your partners and celebrating with the winners,” Long enthuses.

“We’ve got the largest dance floor in NTIA history, so people will be dancing up a storm and we simply can’t wait.”

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