Hundreds of journalists, travel agents, tour operators and travel industry PROs gather in Marrakech this week for what is likely to be a more sober ABTA Travel Convention than most. Delegates will reflect on a troubled year for tourism that began with the aftermath of the tsunami and will end having suffered further natural disasters and sustained terrorist activity.
The World Tourism Organisation reports that hotel occupancy in the tsunami-hit Maldives is still only 30 per cent, while the World Travel & Tourism Council predicts the UK will suffer a 1.9 per cent decrease in visitor numbers to 30.9 million this year as a result of the London terror attacks. The travel sector has rarely had to cope with such a challenging PR problem.
Against this backdrop, it is no surprise to see a conference session entitled 'Crisis management – doing it better, doing it together'. Its moderator is Keith Betton, director of corporate affairs and member services at the Association of British Travel Agents, the organisation that represents 850 tour operators and 6,300 shops. What might not be expected is that, while Betton believes journalists may want to label 2005 as an annus horribilis for travel, this is not a phrase he would use.
About 225,000 people around the Indian Ocean died last December but, according to Betton, there is no time for mourning in international travel. While PROs might tread a sensitive line for fear of being perceived as treating this tragedy as an unfortunate blip, Betton demonstrates much more flinty pragmatism. 'As long as you can be sure that people are going to have a healthy holiday and not put the infrastructure under pressure in affected areas, it would be irresponsible not to go back,' he says firmly.
He uses recent news to prove the point. At the time of interview, 8,500 British holiday makers have been left stranded by a hurricane in Cancun while 20,000 are suffering the same fate in Florida. But Betton is unflappable. 'The pace of news means most are prone to forget the disaster before last. The Cayman Islands were devastated last autumn,' he points out, and lists other recent events: Bali, Madrid, New Orleans, Pakistan. 'The news cycle moves on – it's quite scary actually,' he says. 'But I hate the word "crisis". That's when you're at risk of losing control. These are incidents.'
The word 'incident' may appear to belittle such serious events, but Betton won't be thrown by negative press attention. As BBC travel correspondent Peter Nunn admits: 'He's got a very calm air about him. He is polished and slick – a very good performer.'
According to Betton, relaying calmness while seemingly in the midst of adversity is vital to all good crisis communications . It is a rule he keeps no matter how urgent an initial press call appears to be. The first he knew of Boxing Day's devastating tsunami, for example, was when he was awoken at 4.30am by a journalist from Radio 5 Live.
Rather than give in to a request for an immediate comment, Betton asked for half an hour's grace so he could switch on his TV and radio and hear how the breaking news was being covered. The resulting interview – which by then included eyewitnesses on the ground – gave him the chance to ask them questions, which helped him deal with the 300 media calls over the next three days.
In response to the tsunami, ABTA's recovery plan emphasised the fact that swathes of tourist Thailand had been entirely unaffected. In addition to organising update seminars, Betton travelled to the country in February, working with the British Guild of Travel Writers to coax favourable articles out of the media while highlighting recovery in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
The campaign is not over yet. Betton is also going to Sri Lanka in December for the first time since the tsunami. 'I don't want to be interviewed as the guy who hasn't even been there,' he says simply.
'We've got to plan for the media to talk about the tsunami on
26 December this year – the anniversary of the disaster – when there will be memorial services in all the areas affected. Many in the [travel] industry are nervous and would rather not talk about it. It depresses me that people are reluctant to face up to what happens.'
His response to the tsunami exemplifies his thorough methods. 'I compile all the information I'll need early. One thing I've learned is you won't have time later,' he says. 'Minimising the number of spokespeople has also stood me in good stead. I hate it when messages get varied – that is when you can't refine them. I always monitor the media carefully because inaccuracies need pointing out.'
Betton's meticulous approach is borne out of necessity. Occasionally, though, he grumbles about the way 24/7 news, and blogs, can dictate the agenda – new elements for him to control. 'Things get reported more vividly and quickly, and images often come from holidaymakers. This makes planning even more important,' he says. At one point, he even confides: 'It pisses me off that once news stations get hold of your mobile they won't let it go.'
But it is not just journalists who call him. Holidaymakers about to travel to hurricane-hit resorts, or parents worried for children who are already in those zones, also see ABTA as a source of information. Providing financial security for the public who travel with its member firms means ABTA's fame has even reached the set of EastEnders. 'I met Patsy Palmer [who played Bianca] at some luvvies' party,' reveals Betton. 'She said: "Oh, ABTA. They're the lot that get you home if your travel company goes bust. Brilliant."' Betton is understandably delighted by such recognition for the brand.
These occasions reveal a softer side to ABTA. But as it must always appear business-like to the companies it represents, Betton has to be prepared for pretty much anything. A couple of years ago, drinkers in a New Forest pub were surprised to see him wearing a shirt and tie, plus shorts and walking boots, and being interviewed by a TV crew. There had just been an attempted coup in Gambia, an African destination for up to 50,000 Brits each year, and journalists wanted to know how holidaymakers were doing. This sartorial schizophrenia was the logical result of combining his passion for birdwatching with his day job. 'I put the shirt and tie in the boot of the car just in case,' he explains.
Tourism and terror
However, having strived to back up his theory that this year has been simply 'as bad as any', rather than uniquely dreadful, he concedes that 'terrorism and tourism are more closely entwined than in the past. The days of an incendiary bomb in a litter bin injuring a couple of tourists are long gone: now tens, hundreds or even thousands of holidaymakers seem likely to be killed'.
And there is a hint of defensiveness when Betton admits: 'If you looked at my CV you could say it was a really successful career or a complete disaster. I've been here since 1986 and haven't managed to get out of it.'
But all the indications are that this won't be the case for much longer: Betton plans to set up his own issues management company soon, although is tight-lipped about details. 'I won't be here when I'm 50,' smiles the 45-year-old. Indeed, Betton says his biggest
professional regret came when phoned by PRWeek 15 years ago – to be told that he was in line to be in the magazine's feature on the 'top ten young PROs to watch': 'I was 30. They asked about my future career and I said I would maybe get into marketing communications. They dropped me for someone else.'
It is impossible to imagine this consummate travel PRO making such a slip today – which is just as well. When it comes to issues management, the famous 'golden hour' of response time does not exist any more, he says. 'The chances are you'll hear from a reporter who has been called by one of your customers. As we sit here, the next incident is a day nearer than yesterday.'
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