Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The ABTA convention- a point of reference for the online market?

Travolution approached the ABTA convention in Marrakech with interest-ABTA was under pressure this year to revamp the format and make it a better event, and that was from its traditional members. The convention has suffered in previous years from the absence of online players, or to put it correctly, newer forms of distribution affecting agents, operators, and online players- have never seemed greatly represented. Yes, Brent might make a speaking appearance, but the agenda has always seemed dominated by commissions and other ‘nitty-gritty’ issues, whist neglecting the winds of change whistling around the sector.

Was this year different? Well in some ways: We sensed a real change in attitude in most traditional players- both agents and operators seemed less inclined to dig their heels in and defend the old ways. Many we spoke to are recognising the need to change are investing in new skills, new opportunities, and becoming more fleet-of-foot. The session on Search marketing chaired by Travolution was packed- and travel agents were well represented. There also seems to be recognition that Darwinian evolution is necessary and unstoppable- there may well be 1,800 casualties among traditional travel agents in the next few years (as Chris Mottershead suggested in his session)- but some of these will re-emerge as ‘new shape companies', and those who survive will be stronger. It was good to see e-marketing companies like Spannerworks there- as well as healthy representation from Expedia/Hotels.com, lastminute.com and Cendant among the delegates.

The conference itself worked better as a networking format- less disparate than in previous years, and the new ‘talk zone’ met with approval from both delegates and suppliers. The conference content itself was disappointing: ABTA rightly needs to attract speakers from other sectors, as the upheavals in distribution/the supply chain are mirrored in telecoms, music, automotive, etc- but John Caudwell missed the mark. Tough, successful businessman he may be, but he failed to tell the audience anything meaningful. There is a real meaningful comparison between the retail paradigms in mobile telephones Vs travel. Sadly, we failed to hear it.

Once again this first day degenerated into lengthy discussions on commission cuts, fuel supplements and the role of ABTA. These are important, but ABTA missed a real opportunity to set its stall out for the future, both by providing inspiring content and by outlining its future role. What should be its future role? See below for our view.

Overall, if new forms of distribution are your pre-occupation, you’d have had a useful time at ABTA this year- but your value would probably have come from fellow delegates rather than the stage.

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