THE DAY THE CONFERENCE CAME TO TOWN

Over the past year, with the global economic downturn putting significant pressure on the ability for people to travel for both work and play, the global Travel & Tourism industry has seen a severe falling off in critical metrics: arrivals, revenues, investment, trade, employment to name the main.

Travellers needing more and more to get away from the stresses of today have had to turn to their computer screens to enjoy some travel escapism through the ‘I wish‘ travel planning process. Flight search engines, destination websites and other travel pages have increased in their wishful traveller audiences. Sun seekers now turn to sun.coms and sunbeds for maybe-one-day destination planning. And businesspeople now turn away from their corporate travel agents and turn on Skype and other video-conferencing technology to keep connected to key contacts across the country and world.

Business Travel has experienced a particular bruising in 2009. From small to large, businesses across the globe needing to manage costs have, since the beginning of the open usage of the R-word, recession, looked to travel budgets to find trimmable fat. Meetings, conferences, conventions and incentive trips have been cancelled. The entire MICE industry (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) effectively shut down. There was no reason to celebrate, no reason to convene, no budget to incentivise. Banks were collapsing, businesses were closing and headcounts were being cut.

Even more painful, reputations were being ruined. Businesses seen to be conferencing were being openly accused (and often publicly shamed) for irresponsible spending on perks and parties when there were serious issues to deal with at the bottom line. The trips and tee-times and spa treatments had to stop, the politicians declared. Those days were over. Gratitude had to shift from annual get-aways to daily employment.

So even those businesses willing and able to spend on large scale business events were forced to cut back on their plans purely to keep corporate images lean and clean. Hotel rooms, empty. Banquet halls, empty. Conference rooms, empty. Plenary sessions, empty. Breakaway rooms, empty. Business centres, empty. Hopes for a return of bookings, empty.

As a result of the decline in MICE sector business the Tourism economy suffered further losses. Hotel and Conference Centre staff lost jobs in both big convention cities and on small island resorts as bookings were cancelled. Concerns grew as numbers fell. The business of Tourism, a front line business, felt both emotional and financial crisis. Destinations engineered for the MICE sector, the likes of Las Vegas and Dubai, saw black ink turn to red faster than printer ink cartridges could be replaced.

Even to this day, as the economic crisis is slowly and cautiously slipping into ‘recovery’ status in markets around the world, Business Tourism / the MICE sector, remains depressed. Alternatives to business travel have been adopted, especially in terms of e-conferencing and e-meetings. And extras are no longer expected.

There have been, however, significant studies undertaken during the Great Recession of 2008/9 questioning the risks of e-dependent business development. Particularly at the top. Regardless of how advanced our technology has become, the need for 3D grows the higher the importance of the decision becomes. Face-to-face is critical. Especially as global business forces cultures of incredible distance and differences to connect. Intuitively we all know this – there is no replacement for direct contact when the issue at hand is important to us.

The banning of business travel and events in 2009 has forced a rethink of why exactly business travel is needed. Going from 100% to 0% is not an option. There has to be a point of correction, the position on the scale where the right balance is found between investment and return.

Because the fact is this: when people meet, when they talk, when they share ideas, and when they create, opportunities and energy and excitement bubble up. And with all of this creative energy and growing possibility, solutions are found. Solutions which unlock growth, development, economic recovery and black ink.

Business travel has a role to play in economic recovery. A critical role. There is also the very real, very visible and very audible effect of the convergence of groups of people on a destination for a conference, convention, meeting or incentive event. Hotel reception desks become centres of organised chaos as wide-eyed, well uniformed staff are confronted by excited delegates seeking room keys, conference packs, tour information and currency exchange. At times the day the conference came to town can appear as the day the circus came to town. All the activity, all the running around, all that noise.

But all that noise is in fact music. It is the music of people meeting, people working, people moving forward.

As 2010 nears and begins to unfold, the challenge to the MICE / Business Tourism sector is not simply in rebuilding numbers of bookings, jobs and revenues, it is in rebuilding credibility. And the ownership of that challenge is the industry itself.

It is the industry which must step out and up, sharing with the global business community the importance of meetings, conferences and conventions to restimulating thinking, restimulating ideas and restimulating the economy.

The bottom line is this: everyone gets excited when the circus comes to town. It’s not about the clowns. It’s not about the aerial acts. It’s not about all of the theatrics taking place under the big top. It’s about all the possibility that lies within all of that creativity.

We need to get back into the tent. And like meetings, conferences and conventions which used to have golf and spa as treats, at the new circus you need to pay for your own popcorn and candy floss.

Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA 2009

TOURISM: A HOTHOUSE FOR GREEN SHOOTS


Green shoots.

These two little words have become a wordwide symbol of hopeful recovery of the global economic crisis which has held markets and minds in a tight grip since the end of 2008. The expression, the image, the sentiment, now appears in news reports and business bulletins across our e-connected world.

The words first entered our vocabulary at the end of Q1/2009 when the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve made reference to the term last heard during Great Britain during the 1991 recession. This time the economic landscape was looking very bleak indeed – the term were a statement of hope, faith, albeit desperate quest. In Q2/2009 it became a question of ‘are we seeing green shoots, yet?’. Now, as Q3 soon comes to a close, the question is: ‘how many are there…and how high will they grow?’

(For a lovely explanation of the term, technically speaking, it is worth investing a moment in watching http://questmeansbusiness.blogs.cnn.com/2009/07/29/jargon-buster-green-shoots/ )

Amongst the general public what green shoots represent as economic indicators has become almost secondary to what they represent as emotional checkpoints. The words ‘green shoots’ have taken on a life of their own. Their presence and rate of growth have become psychological indicators of how quickly and how deeply we can exhale. With the rise in height of green shoots comes the rise in consumer confidence, the rise in spending and, importantly, the rise in the feeling of ‘I made it!‘ And with that, a feeling of deserved reward.

And what better way to celebrate having endured a year of immense pressure that taking a holiday to decompress? Time to dust off the passport!

As Q4 of 2009 unfolds there is strong reason to believe that an end will come to the holding off. Holidays will be rebooked, escapes will be replanned, pampering will be rescheduled. Why? Because the very real feelings of fear and fatigue around job security, investment stability and long-term security which millions of people around the world have experienced, month after month, have taken their toll. People are tired. And now that there is shared, statistical reason to believe a corner being turned, a years+ worth of quietly stored-up fatigue and fear is being released. The tonic of travel is needed.

For this, and many other reasons (including significant funding having been put into Tourism sector stimulus programmes by governments), it is strongly believed that the Travel & Tourism industry will play an important role in driving recovery of nations. As people turn to travel for a much needed rebuilding of strength of body and spirit, the sector will experience some of the first sparks of economic activity and recovery. Sparks which have the power to ignite a powerful flame.

Because the impact of the traveller on a destination is exponential – the sector enjoys the benefits of the multiplier effect. As travellers start dreaming and planning their holidays travel agents will start booking again, airline crews will start flying again, taxi engines will start up revving, restaurants will start cooking again, theater performers will start singing and dancing again, artists will start painting portraits of tourists passing by again, postcards will be popped into mail boxes again, hotel beds will be turned down again, shop doorbells will start ringing again, spa candles will start burning again, tour guides will start sharing stories again, fruit, flower and fresh veggie growers will start growing again, vineyards will start bottling & labelling again, developers will start building again, banks will start loaning again, investors will start believing again… and tired tourists will start smiling again.

As will the people of the destination. Economic, and emotional recovery, is underway.

At a time when the world needs inspiration and participation it is the Travel & Tourism sector which has come to represent a powerful force of change – positive change – which encourages and invites participation of all people of the destination as hosts and as travellers themselves.

September marks WORLD TOURISM MONTH. With the spotlight on the Travel & Tourism sector there could be no better time to use the spotlight to create a hothouse for green shoots!

Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA 2009

RESPONSIBLE TOURISM, RESPONSIBLE TOURISTS

The concept of Responsible Tourism has, rightly, taken a front row seat in the strategies, policies and philosophies of nations seeking to grow and develop their tourism economies. Building a tourism destination responsibly, actively conscious of the impact which the tourism industry has on the place, people and promise of the destination, is critical to the long-term health and well being of the destination.

Responsible tourism is everyone‘s responsibility.

As a result members of both the public and private sector are coming together across the global Travel & Tourism community to talk sustainability, responsibility, longevity and accountabilityfundamentals of sector growth and development. Principles and programmes are being created which ensure that growth of the destination takes into careful consideration the impact of travellers on:

  • the natural environment of the destination
  • the established culture and traditions of the destination
  • the style and character of the destination
  • the spirit and ethos of the people of the destination
  • the immediate growth and development needs of the destination along with its future aspirations

The definition of ‘Responsible Tourism’ has evolved organically to include both the tangibles and the intangibles of the destination, both the present and the future, both the expectations and the experience.

Importantly, very importantly, it also reaches out to include both the travel destination and the traveller.

Responsibility for the well being of the destination is not only the responsibility of the tourism sector – it is also the responsibility of the tourist.

This, sadly, is so often forgotten. Boldly with our tickets, money and passports in hand we set forth to enter a new part of the word. We seek to explore and seek to experience something new. We seek to be educated and entertained. We seek to close deals in meeting rooms and close our eyes on beaches. And we feel good about it because we know our being there is good for the destination’s economy.

There can, however, be a cost to the destination through our presence. One which can do profound damage to both how the destination experiences us…and how we experience the destination.

There is a powerful, poignant passage in the closing of chapter one of Gregory David Roberts’ beautifully written SHANTARAM which goes as follows:

“The owners of the hotel received four dollars per day per room. That was their base line. The dollar or two above that minimum was all Anand and his staff of three room boys shared as their daily wage. The little victories haggled from him by foreign tourists cost Anand his daily bread, and cost them the chance to know him as a friend.”

The truthfulness of the passage hits one’s heart more deeply the more one reads it. All of us, we the travellers of the modern world, not only know what is meant by his words…we feel what is meant.

In a small collection of words is a message of one of the greatest risks of the growth of the Travel & Tourism sector today – the risk that in all of our busy-ness, bravely venturing out to see the world, we fail to see what the world sees in us.

When travelling to new, newly ‘open for business’ destinations stereotypes and pre-departure stories of ‘what could happen’ can often
collide with immediate sights and sensations. This cocktail causes our behaviour to change. Our awareness heightens. Our eyes widen. For some the heart opens wider, engagingly. For others the heart can close tightly, the defensive and suspicious mind taking over. It happens, within all of us, at different levels, depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

And actually this deeply personal impact is part of the excitement and growth and personal learning of travel.

Still, it is important to remember that we travellers, through our behaviour in new travel environments and situations, can impose culture shock as much as we can experience it ourselves. Our words, our gestures, our beliefs and our behaviours – these can also be intensely new experiences for people of the destination. How we treat the destination – how we engage with the local people, how we care for their environment, how we respect amd embrace their customs, codes and character, how we share our culture and how we carry home their little corner of the world – brings to life the responsibility we have to the places we travel as travellers.

As we cross borders to learn more about and celebrate the world we live in we should never forget that we are absolutely blessed to be able to experience firsthand the rich array of new cultures and communities opening their doors and putting out the welcome mat to travellers. Our interest in exploring nations is our privilege, not our right.

We are guests.
We are ambassadors of our home countries.
We are heartbeats.
And we have a responsibility to take care of the places we visit as much as they reach out to take care of their visitors.

Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA 2009


TOURISM’S H1N1 TEST

As recently as 5 weeks ago a world already gripped by the economic downturn was suddenly put into a new state of panic. An illness never heard of before was hitting the global headlines, generating fears of a global pandemic. Swine flu.

As numbers of reported cases increased and counts of lives taken moved into double and triple digits, the red light began to flash. Its location: Mexico.

Within a matter of days one of the world’s largest cities – Mexico City – went into lock-down (costing the city a estimated US$ 88 million per day in lost commerce over a five day city closure period). One of the world’s leading tourism destinations – Mexico – went into paralysis. The resulting tourism economy (representing 8% of GDP – the nation’s third largest economic sector) went into shock as visitors to the destination at the time were put into surgical masks (and quarantine if showing signs of flu-like symptoms), travel advisories were issued discouraging non-essential travel to the destination, hotel occupancy levels sank to single digits and bookings of imminent travellers were cancelled.

Across the globe the effects of the H1N1 scare could be felt, tangibly and intangibly. The world map started to develop a rash. Red spots began to appear on countries across the globe as international news networks began tracking numbers of suspected, and confirmed cases of Swine Flu. As quickly as airplanes could cross oceans the dots would start to appear.

Travellers went into drug stores in search of preventative vaccines. Pharmaceutical companies went into overdrive to build up supplies while their share prices built up in value. And pigs went into hiding.

The fears of a global pandemic spread with as much speed and intensity as the modeling developed during the early days of Bird Flu to help us understand how quickly a virus of this nature could travel. Worst case scenario was being planned for, best case was being prayed for.

To the relief of millions the actual reach and impact of the H1N1 virus was far less than that of previous health scares which took many lives over this past decade – SARS and Avian Flu. Yet fear has remained both within international medical systems and in the minds of travellers. In Asia where the memory of the SARS outbreak and its resulting catastrophic impact on the economy is still fresh, travellers can be seen walking around airports wearing masks, looking suspiciously at anyone who may sneeze. Where once one would instinctively say “God bless you”, today one wonders “are you?”

In so many ways 2009 has been a year of great ills – economic, medical, emotional. For those of us in the Travel & Tourism industry news of fears of a possible pandemic caused immediate concern – what will this do to an already very fragile sector? How much worse can it get?

As voiced by the WTTC in April 2009,

The present economic uncertainties have already taken a heavy toll on demand across the globe and they will continue to endanger millions of jobs in one of the largest industries in the world. The swine flu outbreak is compounding the ailments of the global economy just as there are signs it might be starting to stabilize.”

Mexico, as a result of the Swine Flu outbreak, was the first destination to see travellers cancelling travel plans, arresting much-needed injections of energy and revenues into the destination. International news reports to this day provide updates on expected losses of the AH1N1 virus on Mexico. One month after the crisis hit global headlines Chinese press reported on May 02nd, 2009:

Mexico’s tourism has been hit hard by the outbreak of the A/H1N1 flu, the Mexican government said Saturday. The occupancy rate for major tourist sites in Mexico is expected to decline by 44.8 percent in the coming ten days, Mexican tourism authorities predicted. A series of cultural, business and academic activities in Mexico have been canceled. In such resorts as Cancun and the Maya coast, the occupancy rate of hotels, which should have been flooded with tourists in this season, has decreased to 77.8 percent since April 23 when the government announced urgent anti-flu measures. Such countries as Cuba, Canada, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Chile have canceled their flights to Mexico, while the number of U.S. tourists to Mexico has seen a sharp fall.” (Source: www.chinaview.cn)

Damage to the Mexican tourism industry, greater economy, and spirit continues despite the virus now being viewed as far less severe than expected and under control. In May the impact of the crisis to the Mexican economy was expected to be US$ 2.2 billion. It was predicted that if the virus lasted eight weeks, ie. until today’s date, the impact was estimated by the Mexican Ministry of Finance to be -0.8% decline in GDP. This being in a year when the central bank is already expecting GDP to drop almost 5% as a result of the global economic downturn. Unprecedented action is now being taken by the government and private sector to communicate ‘open for business’. Heavily promoted, heavily discounted package offers support confident, highly compelling invitation to travellers. Now is the time to come and enjoy Mexico. Please.

The H1N1 virus continues to spread. As of moments ago (literally) the WHO declared a raising of the level of the virus to LEVEL 6 – pandemic – the highest. The virus has spread to over 70 countries across the globe, with over 28,000 reported cases. While the vast majority of those diagnosed with H1N1 recover swiftly (and often without medication) and a dramatically reduced rate of transmission is being seen compared to original predictions (due to seasonality stunting the spread), the concern remains. Airports continue to conduct fever-checks on arriving passengers, passengers undertake their journeys with face masks in place, and immigration cards are now accompanied by Department of Health forms tracking traveler movements. The WHO, continuing to monitor the spread of the virus and recommending no restrictions in travel, may feel thankful for its relative weakness, but are realistically cautious of its ability to gain in strength.

The red-dotted H1N1 maps have cooled. Other news issues have heated up.

Still, there has been active questioning regarding whether or not the global community – from health practitioners to pharmaceutical companies to travel & tourism professionals over-reacted to the H1N1 outbreak. Was the alarm bell sounded too loudly? Was the scale of the impact of the virus hypothesised too aggressively? Was there reason for global panic?

To look backwards, to debate the WHAT and the HOW, the WHO (no pun intended) and the WHEN, and challenge the WHY and the WHERE, is in fact academic. The global community, with its best minds and intentions, responded as was deemed necessary.

The real question is: What did we learn to keep us even safer and more secure in the future? And even more resilient as a tourism community, globally?

The identification and spread of the H1N1 virus has challenged us as a global Travel & Tourism community to come together to find a global crisis management attitude and response to address a global industry issue. We are a world on the move – borders and boundaries have faded where both travellers, and viruses, are concerned. All it takes is one flight, one cough, one touch, one headline and the virus, in fearful thought and in real form, has spread.

Which means we, as a global industry need to ensure that our recent learning is not wasted. There will be another crisis. There will be another scare. There will be another dramatic threat to the sector as people cancel plans and delete certain destinations from their ‘must visit’ lists.

To prepare for these future situations, now is the time to work together to determine, if and when it happens,:
• What do we need to do?
• Who needs to take the lead?
• How do followers need to respond?
• What messages do we need to put out during the crisis?
• And how do we rebound afterwards?

So importantly one of the greatest lessons from the recent H1N1 virus is the fact that ‘we’ no longer refers to the people of a destination. Or even a region. The ‘we’ is now global.

The H1N1 virus was, and continues to be, a critical test of the global Travel & Tourism community. As expressed by the UNWTO during the recent H1N1 crisis:

In view of the current developments relating to ‘swine influenza’, UNWTO recommends that States review their pandemic preparedness plans for travel and tourism. UNWTO’s previously organized simulation exercises have shown the importance of properly integrating travel and tourism within these plans to mitigate the impact of health emergencies especially in their international dimension. It is also recommended that the tourism private sector reviews their pandemic preparations and verifies the links with the respective state authorities.”

Be it natural disasters, political, social or medical crisis, the response of the destination, and the wider global community, plays an important part in managing the impact of the crisis on the destination:
• as a Brand,
• as an economy,
• as a society, and
• as a member of the global tourism community.

Our focus needs to be on the holistic health of our industry, ensuring each muscle of the global Travel & Tourism sector – our associations, our partnerships, our cooperation and collaborations, our policies, our infrastructure, our invitation, our experience delivery, our stakeholder community, our government leadership, our private sector partners, our investors, our local communities, our environment and our travellers – are able to strengthen through through times of challenge. Strengthen in body, mind and spirit.

At an individual destination level proactive planning for crisis is vital to the ability of the destination to recover in all key metrics, including:
1) image,
2) arrivals,
3) revenues,
4) investment attraction, and
5) sustainable competitiveness.

At the centre of destination recovery is communication – the ability to manage messaging during and after a crisis. A comprehensive Brand-based COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY is required for the Tourism destination as a part of the greater long-term TOURISM GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY.

But it doesn’t end there.

The spreading of key MESSAGES during and following a crisis requires alignment of key MESSENGERS – partnerships with industry leaders, industry stakeholders from the private and public sector, and importantly the media. Communicating correct information and core messages when a destination is stunned by a sudden shock is a massive challenge. The establishment of communications networks and guidelines for disseminating accurate information around the destination is something which should always be a part of the destination’s mandate, in good times and those more challenging. The stronger the networks, the wider and more acurately messages will be carried across the industry, destination and world.

In the case of the latter the importance of strong, informed and actively engaged partnerships with the media cannot be overemphasised. Global media sets the tone of global communications – the key source of information for travellers when something has gone wrong…and when things are right again, ready for the return of visitors. It is in the interest of all destinations to build relationships with the world most trusted news networks such as CNN. It is these Messengers with their massive audience reach who will be feeding updates to people around the world wanting to be the first to know, and to know the news is trustworthy. Importantly, it is also these global news networks who become the fuel for destination recovery as it is their news wires carry the invitation to the world to come visit – the destination is back in business.

Prevention. Response, Recovery. Growth. Together.

Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA / CACHET Consulting 2009

OUR WORLD, CONNECTED

One of the most visible, powerful and unavoidable signs of a change in our times, in the world as we know it, is language. Across the globe, across cultures and borders, the evolving formulation, form and expression of words has been a natural occurrence with the passing of time. As we have moved from one generation to the next, one phase of history to the next, one culture to the next and even one period in a nation’s redevelopment to the next, the language used to communicate has always acted as a mirror of change.

Today, however, the rate evolution of language, and communication per se, has been dramatically accelerated through the injection of new technologies into the human desire to ‘connect’ with others. Not long ago when we wanted to communicate with another person a phone call would be made to arrange for a meeting, be it social or business. Time was invested into communicating through words and physical expression. The quest and actual fulfillment of desire to communicate could extend over a period of hours even days. But alas carefully crafted was ultimately replaced by more staccato statements. Tight telexes and faxes took over as time – sending time – started to become a constraint. Communication became curbed. To connect more and more meant simply to be in contact.

And then the cyberworld broke open for the common man across the globe. While the internet dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, the invention of the worldwide web unlocked a platform for data sharing, from information to invitations, which took us into a mode of communication beyond anything we had ever seen before or could ever imagine. Boundaries of language, style and time were dissolved. Take email for example – a staple in daily communication for a significant proportion of the western business community. Suddenly, with the push of a ‘SEND’ button we were able to communicate across the world in a matter of seconds. And, where once we were patient for a reply, we soon began to want, and expect, immediate reply.

From that moment on there was no looking back. Not only were new forms of communication changing our ability to communicate, they were beginning to change our communication behaviour.

Importantly, our ability to connect to one another became not only an expression of desire to communicate, it became a statement of practical technical capability to communicate.
What has been equally fascinating to see is just how our written word has changed, dramatically, in the past five years. Computer based email was soon complemented by mobile text messaging – SMSing. With SMS text messaging came a complete reinvention of how words and expressions are created. Short-form became smart-form. Code became cool. Sadly, however, correct spelling became laborious, etiquette became lame.

And now today when we find ourselves reprogrammed. We see any line of characters – numbers or letters – preceded by www. and our brains automatically begin to dissect the statement. Not long ago we would have looked at the illegible collection of letters (and now numbers) and not thought twice. It was incomprehensible. But today, without a moment of hesitation, we absorb the letters and allow our brains to break the code. More times than not within seconds a statement emerges – a name, a phrase, a message which makes sense and acts as a call to action to click and find out more.

These changes in our written word, and methods of spreading them, have created a confidence of self-expression which has been allowed to explode, in breadth and exhibitionism, with the latest wave of technology trends. Whenever and however we wish we are able to post our thoughts to the e-world. We text and we twitter, we blog and we skype, we facebook and we youtube and we chat. And when we are not sure about something, we google. Communications nouns have become verbs.

24/7/365 our words reach out to our ‘friends’ in our now socially networked world. And the more friends we have, the more important we can often feel and the more courageously we write.

So, has the communications explosion of our generation been a good thing or a bad thing? The answer to that question is highly personal. Just like our very personal, globally reaching messaging.

What we should never forget, however, is where it all began.

The essence of communication is connection. True connection. The kind that brings people closer together in thought and spirit as a basis for building relationships, not just in wires and websites and wide-reaching networks of our friendlies. Our technology – the tool for communication – should never become the reason for our communication.

Today’s array of formats for sharing thought and ideas are, without question, great advances in our ability to come together as a global community. They have enhanced our ability to reach out. It is then up to us to be able to meaningfully touch the minds and hearts of those with whom we connect. It is our responsibility to ensure that our words continue to reflect, with accuracy and authenticity, who we are and how we wish to come closer to others. First as faces and heartbeats.

Then and only then as e-addresses.

Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA 2009