New ABTA chairman John McEwan has the key industry concerns of gaining the government’s ear and ending confusion about consumer protection high on his agenda. But how will he approach the job?
He concedes there is a degree of disquiet among ABTA member agents, represented by the 46% vote for his opponent in the election for chairman, Danielle Broccoli.
“Certainly, there is a perception the views of independent agents are not heard,” says McEwan. “I’m not sure how real it is, but this is an opportunity to look at the process. It will help that I chair ABTA’s Council of Regions. I aim to ensure views are carried forward from the council.”
McEwan believes he can help forge unity as chairman. “I hope I was seen as a unity candidate,” he says. “My background is in the retail business, but I have worked for vertically-integrated companies [TUI UK and Thomas Cook] and been five years working for independent agents at Advantage.”
He does not see a conflict between his role at ABTA and as chief executive at Advantage. “Probably 25% of independent agents in ABTA are Advantage members and the challenges they face are similar to those facing Worldchoice members. Whatever I can do to help will help all independent agents,” he says.
But the new chairman does expect the ABTA board to show unity now the election is past. “A good debate is healthy, but there has to be unity,” says McEwan. “We may have different opinions, but we should not show any divisiveness. Board members have a legal obligation to the entire membership.”
He says he is looking forward to working with chief executive Mark Tanzer and the ABTA team, adding: “I will be spending quite a bit of time with Mark. Relations between chairman and chief executive have to be productive.”
So will we notice a change in the association? “If there is anything it will be that I like transparent communications. I am looking forward to the first Council of Regions to get feedback from members.
“You will probably see more of me in the media. I will be commenting on issues and looking at how we move lobbying forward. But it is not my job to run ABTA. It is important to distinguish between the role of chairman and chief executive. It is Mark’s job to run the business. I see my role as supportive.”
There will be no quick fix on lobbying. “It is clear we do not have the ear of government,” says McEwan.
“We need to convey how important the outbound industry is to the economy – the numbers it employs, the amount of tax paid. I am not sure we have used the arguments to good effect in the past. There is the prospect the government will change between now and next May and we need to be addressing the key figures.
“There are areas where we could co-operate with bodies such as VisitBritain, and we should be working with the airlines over air passenger duty.
“We have to be consistent in approach and build relations. My view is you need a level of experience to do that. I am not sure how long it will take, but I see it as a priority.”
McEwan will also be reaching out to other trade bodies. “I will be having a broad dialogue with the TTA-Worldchoice and I have good relations with Travel Counsellors. The more we can engage the better. ABTA is in a good position to move things forward on behalf of all independent members.”