Accreditation versus Certification – the debate continues

Last year the Council of Australian Tour Operators decided to go it alone in terms of accreditation, with a new CATO constitution removing the necessity for members to be part of the AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme. However AFTA this week noted that ATAS accreditation "sends a message that you are committed to industry self-regulation and improving consumer confidence in Australia's travel businesses".

THE COUNCIL of Australian Tour Operators (CATO) last year announced with a fanfare that it was going its own way in terms of accreditation for its members, as part of “progressive initiatives” involving a new structure for the organisation as a federally-constituted not-for-profit Company Limited by Guarantee. The move included the creation of a formal CATO Member Code of Conduct and a CATO Member Advertising Code of Conduct – as well as the development of “an external independent accreditation scheme, fit for purpose, for the land supply sector”.

The ambitious change – which saw CATO drop its previous formal requirement that members be part of the AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS) – also anticipated the possible development of exclusive CATO insurance products “aimed at developing greater agent support and consumer confidence when booking travel product with CATO members”.

12 months on, travelBulletin asked CATO for an update, with MD Brett Jardine having recently filled the Council’s Board in on progress towards its stated goals. “Following our announcement of the CATO Accreditation Process last year, we developed a four-phase framework and to-date have completed Phases 1-3 as a priority,” a spokesperson told travelBulletin. “CATO members that have agreed to abide by our constitution and member code of conduct, have reviewed and implemented CATO’s industry standard booking terms and conditions (or equivalent) and have all appropriate insurances in place, are now recognised as ‘CATO Certified’,” the organisation confirmed.

The final phase of the framework is insurance, with CATO seeking a solution which can protect consumer funds and travel agent commissions in situations where Australian consumers are booking with CATO members – including via retail agents. However “a formal outcome from these discussions is taking longer than anticipated, as insurers remain very cautious in returning to market with a travel related product and it is critical for the sector that we have the optimum coverage,” the Council said.

Discussions are ongoing, with CATO anticipating providing its members with a further update before the end of September “with a view to finalising the last phase of the framework by the end of the year”.

For its part AFTA continues to push the importance of travel businesses being accredited as a key way of reinforcing consumer confidence in the wider travel and tourism sector. An update this week noted that the Federation’s team is currently working through more than 800 ATAS renewals “and it is great to see some of the travel businesses that went into hibernation because of COVID are now reopening”. CEO Dean Long noted that ATAS is the largest and most representative accreditation program in the country.

“Your ATAS accreditation also sends a message that you are committed to industry self-regulation and improving consumer confidence in Australia’s travel businesses. In a world where support and credibility is essential to success, ATAS is critical support for you, your clients and other travel businesses,” Long said.

In stark contrast to CATO’s certification arrangements, AFTA noted that “the ATAS process, as most will know, is more than an upload and you’re done…it is a rigorous process that examines a business’s performance against stringent financial criteria, examining profitability, client funds, insurance coverages and business processes”.

For its part, CATO has noted that with tour operators and wholesalers investing heavily in product and marketing long before travel agencies become involved in selling, this is a “very different business model that CATO believes should be treated very differently when it comes to accreditation”.

To some in the industry, the differences between the approaches of the two organisations may seem unnecessary. While there are of course differing business models that make a one-size-fits-all solution difficult, some are asking why couldn’t there be an ATAS category which would apply to tour operators and wholesalers, with different criteria applying from those applied to travel agencies because of their alternative requirements?

After all, in the end business is business, profit is profit, client funds are client funds and there must be a baseline that would apply to any operation, with different tweaks based on different business segments.

Both CATO and AFTA are adamant that their primary directive is to protect the interests of their members – and a united front may be the best way to achieve this, regardless of the minutiae going on behind the scenes. Perhaps the upcoming ATAS review – due to be released at the end of the month – may provide a way for these organisations to come closer rather than continuing on their current divergent paths.

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