Profile: Casia Zajac, head of communications, ABTA

ABTA comms head Casia Zajac has the unenviable task of keeping the body relevant to the travel industry. She tells Kate Magee her strategy.

Casia Zajac
Casia Zajac

The great and the good of the travel industry have descended on Barcelona's famous cobbled streets this week for the annual ABTA Convention.

Amid the bustle is Casia Zajac, who has been head of comms for the travel industry's best-known trade association for the past year. As ABTA edges closer to its 60th anniversary next year, she has the daunting task of modernising its image and making sure it retains its once pivotal position in the UK travel landscape.

The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) is well known to consumers (75 per cent brand recognition, according to a recent Ipsos Mori poll), and has a deep reach in the industry, representing more than 5,000 travel agents and 900 tour operators in the UK. But there are misconceptions.

Consumers still think the ABTA symbol will offer them financial protection, but this is no longer always the case. In addition, the public is increasingly turning to peer-review sites such as TripAdvisor, which rivals ABTA's authority. Meanwhile, travel companies are selling more services to consumers online, a worry for both travel agents and their trade body.

She might face an uphill struggle, but Zajac is no stranger to capitalising on an opportunity. Weeks into her first travel PR job as head of comms for The Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board, pop star Madonna announced she was marrying Guy Ritchie in a Scottish castle in the Highlands.

Zajac raced up to the local tourist information centre ready for the huge influx of journalists arriving from all over the world. 'When the journalists couldn't get near Madonna, I told them I would do the interviews instead,' she says. Just by being proactive, Zajac managed to scoop ten broadcast interviews, leading to a huge global increase in the profile of the Highlands.

'I did really silly things - I got all the staff in the tourist information office to wear pashminas made out of Guy Ritchie's family tartan. I also organised an alternative wedding reception for journalists. It was a good talking point,' she laughs.

ABTA is a complex organisation and Zajac has to deal with an array of stakeholders, audiences and issues. The media are always on the phone asking for quotes on a myriad of travel stories, often negative ones that involve ABTA members.

As Brighter PR's chairman Steve Dunne explains, she also replaced the irrepressible Keith Betton, who had a high profile in the industry. 'She has big shoes to fill,' says Dunne. 'She knows the industry well but it's a tough job.'

But Zajac is no lightweight. She has worked in investor relations for a securities house, giving presentations on Japanese firms to UK investors, as well as working at Scottish Hydro Electric and a series of charities.

She also had the tenacity to deal with being the only person with a surname beginning with 'Z' when she grew up in the Scottish Highlands. Her rather unusual name points to her Polish heritage (Casia is Cathy in Polish).

Zajac's soft Scottish accent and elegant style are probably products of her time spent living in different parts of the world including New Orleans, France, New York and now London. She may be in her early fifties, but one would not guess it from her fitted purple dress with matching Mulberry bag and funky silver jewellery.

'Once you've lived in all these places it does get more difficult to settle. I never imagined I'd be back in London in this fabulous city. It's just so interesting,' she says.

Biss Lancaster's chairman Graham Lancaster, who has previously sat in Zajac's role, praises her unflappable manner: 'Casia has brought a cool head and professionalism to what can be a very stressful job. Her experience has given her the ability to handle both the tactical and the strategic.'

So what is Zajac's fight-back strategy? Her plans include stressing the breadth of services ABTA provides, such as legal advice, an arbitration service for consumers who suffer problems on holiday and a sustainable tourism initiative. She is also focusing on the body's unique expertise.

In addition, she is beefing up political campaigning and has hired a new head of public affairs. She believes this is a crucial way of maintaining support among members because it shows ABTA has the ability to influence decisions that affect the industry. For example, the body is campaigning against the proposed increase to air passenger duty. 'There are lots of issues in the sector at the moment, such as the expansion in Heathrow airport. We need to have a position on these issues,' she says.

The big issues seem unlikely to go away any time soon. So if you see Zajac in Barcelona this week, buy her a glass of Rioja. She might need it.

 

CASIA ZAJAC'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Joining Scottish Hydro Electric as a press officer was really jumping in at the deep end as I had little PR experience. The communications team, headed by Mike Keohane, was very professional. I learned a huge amount in a short space of time.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

My current boss, Mark Tanzer, has an astute and incisive mind. My former line manager David Noble at VisitScotland taught me about the importance of planning, measuring risk and how to make things happen. The key is to listen because that's when you learn; this is not a common trait among PR professionals.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Try to be true to yourself - a bit of a cliche, I know, but saying what people want to hear is easy. Gaining credibility and respect is what matters and sometimes that means learning how to say 'no' constructively. And always deliver what you promise.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Enthusiasm, commitment and positivity. I value team players who are not in it for self-glorification.

 

CV

2008: Head of communications, ABTA

2007: CEO, Inverness Chamber of Commerce

2000: Director, VisitScotland and The Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board

1999: Account director, David Budge Associates, Scotland

1998: Communications manager, The Prince's Youth Business Trust

1995: Corporate fundraising manager Scotland, Macmillan Cancer Relief

1994: Press officer, Scottish Hydro Electric

1987: Manager, Daiwa Europe, London

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