Mario Hardy: A precise juggle

The Pacific Asia Travel Association serves an exciting industry which is growing despite a challenging global landscape, but it has many key tasks to tackle, from driving tourism to lesser-known destinations and encouraging sustainable processes to engaging next-gen professionals, its CEO tells all.

The world today is facing many challenges all at once, from trade wars to political upheavals. How is the travel industry faring in such a state of affairs?
Unfortunately, I think these challenges will (become) even greater moving forward. We have political, economic and climate challenges, and what we read in the news has a direct impact on currency fluctuation. For example, the Thai baht is extremely strong at the moment, and that impacts us at PATA (which is based in Bangkok), and many other businesses, too. We have very little control over these situations.

At the same time, there’s been an impact with less Chinese coming over to Thailand (due to a tour boat accident in Phuket that led to other traveller security concerns), South Koreans not going to Japan at the moment (due to political disputes), and so on. There are other crises in other parts of Asia where numbers are significantly dropping for a period of time. What’s important is to understand what (the crises) are and how long they are going to last.

The actual number of tourists coming to Asia is still increasing. Although it is not growing as much as it did before, there’s still phenomenal growth in the region.

How is PATA helping the industry to navigate through these times?
What we can do as an organisation is stay ahead of the curve to understand what the current trends are, what the potential impacts are, how we can mitigate these problems, and if things improve, how we can benefit moving forward.

We’re an advocacy organisation, but at the same time, we also want to support our members, share (insights on) trends and understand the implications of all of these changes. It’s challenging because (the world) changes at a really fast pace. All you need is a tweet at 03.00 from someone living far away, and the world changes, mostly in a negative way.

What we’ve been telling our government members is that it’s extremely important for a destination to diversify their product offerings and not rely on one source market. The more balanced your source markets are, the less risk of being impacted by a drop in numbers.

Is that also a pertinent consideration for the western destinations?
Yes, that’s one thing we’re monitoring very closely with organisations such as WTTC and UNWTO through Uniting Travel.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, there is a sentiment at the moment about flight shaming, which is shaming people for flying because it’s creating carbon dioxide emissions. This is growing at a really fast pace in Europe, where (regional travellers) are encouraged to take the train, find alternative ways to travel or not fly at all. It impacts outbound travel via longhaul flights because the longer the flight, the more emissions.

Do you think flight shaming will drive the airline industry to look more seriously at their emission levels?
They have to, for many reasons. The price of fuel is going up, which is a big push for them. Greta Thunberg has been doing a great job speaking the truth and what people don’t want to hear, and this will put pressure not only on airlines, but on the entire travel industry – and other industries – to seriously look at solutions. There are solutions out there but they’re costly and not accessible to everybody.

Speaking of environmental solutions, PATA ran the BUFFET Initiative, aimed at cutting food wastage in the travel industry. It ended in May 2019. How did it fare?
We ran the campaign for more than 12 months – probably 14 months in total – and it got a lot of publicity and interest from various parties in the industry. We had a lot of people asking questions, such as “can we implement it?”.

The BUFFET Toolkit is a set of 10 tools that are available on our website. They’re copyright-free, so anyone can replicate and use them, be they organisations, hotels, convention centres, restaurants or canteens. These are DIY solutions for anybody to implement, and to measure how they’re actually succeeding in food waste reduction.

Probably the most successful part was the competition we organised among students. We had seven teams around the world that competed by implementing the tools in either staff canteens or local hotels in their communities, and then measure the results from it. The winners were a group of students from Bangalore, who implemented the solution in their student canteen and were able to measure a 50 per cent reduction in food waste, which was enormous.

How confident are you in seeing sustainability efforts continue beyond the programme?
We know that many other organisations have since implemented the BUFFET Toolkit. Even today we meet up with people who ask about where they can find it. We met with Kempinski (a luxury hotel chain) recently, and they said they’d definitely look into it.

Even though the campaign is officially finished, we’re still going to continue promoting it. We may actually do some campaigns on and off during different periods of time to remind people about these tools. As new solutions and technologies become available, we may update them and continue to promote the initiative.

What else is PATA doing to encourage improved sustainability in travel and tourism?
We’ve announced our partnership with the Asian Development Bank and Plug and Play Singapore to develop the Plug and Play Travel Asia Pacific platform. Through this, we want to work with the hospitality sector. PATA brings our vast network of members who may want to use (innovative) tools, and Plug and Play will help us to find a solution.

We’re (targeting to have) five hotel groups. So far, Hilton, Minor Hotels and Jetwing Hotels in Sri Lanka have signed up. We’re looking for two more and have ongoing discussions with a few others. Graham Harper (PATA’s director of sustainability and social responsibility) was in Sri Lanka a few months ago, and sat down with the Jetwing team to identify what problems and pain points they had.

What are some concerns that have already surfaced?
For instance, Jetwing is already known as one of the most sustainable hotel groups in the world. They want to go further. They have joined the programme to explore what else they can do, (especially since) they have so many properties. It could be about renewable energy, implementing clean technology in their properties, water consumption, or food or general waste.

The programme will work to understand what would have the most positive impact on the organisation – of course for their bottom line and profit margins – but at the same time doing good for the environment and community. It will then source from more than 10,000 solution providers around the world that can solve the problem, which will be scalable across all properties. If we can do this with five hotel groups, implementing some of these technologies in thousands of properties can have a significant impact and make our industry more sustainable. We don’t want to publish just a research report. That could be one aspect, but I also want tangible, measurable results.

What kinds of hospitality solutions will become more accessible through this platform?
To give one simple example, there’s a technology company that provides high-pressure showers that can reduce water consumption by 50 per cent. One simple little widget that they put into the shower can make a significant difference in Thailand, Singapore and many other places with a shortage of water.

PATA plays an active role in stimulating tourism business in unique destinations by holding its own events there. How have such destinations benefitted?
I’m really proud to say that PATA has had a very direct impact here in Thailand, where the campaign promoting 12 hidden gems in 2014 is now promoting 55, and it keeps increasing every year.

Based on this initiative, Indonesia has started to promote 10 new destinations, and the Philippines is promoting islands that are lesser known. Hosting events has certainly helped to raise awareness for those destinations, and other tourism boards are now starting to embrace this idea.

For PATA Travel Mart 2019, Kazakhstan and (capital city) Nur-Sultan were completely new destinations. For the majority of delegates, it was their first time visiting Kazakhstan. Everyone I talked to at the event said they were happy that we selected this destination, because they may not have gone to Kazakhstan otherwise. It was a country they weren’t familiar with, but it has so much potential.

(Kazakhstan travel and tourism stakeholders) were extremely pleased with the publicity, the satisfaction of people visiting, and the trade deals done with Air Astana and other service providers in the country.

There were big discussions between Vietnam and Kazakhstan to develop some flights as well. I personally had a meeting with an investment firm that was looking at developing duty-free (shops) in the country and they have started to advertise for it, which is something Kazakhstan has never had before.

How do you select which destinations to support through PATA events?
We always have to look at accessibility and the support from both the government as well as the private sectors in terms of presence and promotion of the event.

What are PATA’s plans going into 2020?
Our vision and theme for 2020 is Partnership for Tomorrow, based on United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

We always talk about the unique strength of this public-private membership that we have, and how we actually bring the two sectors together. Now we’re bringing education, youth technology and other parts of the (travel) industry together to form partnerships – even between government departments. A lot of our focus in 2020 will be on discussions around how we can form very successful partnerships between organisations.

We also want to continue to grow. We are trying to find new ways to partner with different organisations to encourage students to not only join as a member, but engage with us, with other students and with leaders within the industry.

This is really important as we’re a 68-year-old organisation. In order for us to continue to grow for many years to come, future leaders have to be involved with us and be part of it from an early stage.

Tell me about PATA’s youth programme.
We’ve started our youth symposiums and a new programme where we hold workshops at universities with industry leaders sharing insights. In a space of four years, we now have more than 5,000 students affiliated with the organisation. We have 23 student chapters globally: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, New Zealand and Canada. We have university members in Europe as well.

Is it a challenge for legacy associations to relate to the younger
Yes, old trade associations in every sector have faced challenges in recent times. Only those who are willing to adapt to the new marketplace will continue to survive. We’re constantly looking at new ways to engage with youth and also existing members.

We recently assigned people as community managers, and the youth (department) was our first and most successful one. Our new Youth Ambassador engages students all the time.

We want to do the same thing with other members, so now we have someone engaging with our government members, and another with the rest of our community through events and activities year-round.

This article was first published in TTGassociations January 2020, a sister publication of TTGmice

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