Australian Federation of Travel Agents chief executive Jayson Westbury has dismissed the 11th hour debate over its controversial accreditation scheme as he declared: “This is the future”.
He said the industry was “moments away” from a historic new era that would remove costs and red tape, raise standards and, ultimately, drive consumers through the doors of accredited agents.
In addition, AFTA will spend “every available cent” raising consumer awareness of the AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS) as Westbury again played down any potential consumer backlash in the event of a company collapse in a world without the Travel Compensation Fund.
Speaking to media at the conclusion of AFTA’s final ATAS roadshow in Sydney, Westbury and accreditation general manager Gary O’Riordan, said the scheme was ready to roll.
They predicted 80% of AFTA members would apply to become accredited. Only 15 companies have so far been approved with 65 applications in the pipeline.
“We are moments away from the realisation of a very courageous policy decision,” Westbury said. “Some of the naysayers and backward thinking people have come forward at the last minute and said ‘how the hell did this happen’. I say to them this has been going on for five and half years.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time and I hope the last remaining naysayers and critics enjoy not being accredited because this is the future. And that future is in our hands.”
Fighting the scheme now was as worthwhile as "throwing darts at concrete", he added.
O’Riordan claimed that many critics “who have been causing confusion” have left the recent workshops in a more positive frame of mind and are now eager to sign up to ATAS.
“While they have caused this storm of activity, at the end of the day most of those are going to join. They have said that to our staff and we are really encouraged by that,” he said.
But he did say that an independent review of the charter and code of conduct will be carried out in 12 months.
"If we need to fine tune it, we will," he said.
As the July 1 launch of ATAS has neared, debate over the scheme has intensified, with the voluntary nature of insurance products among the key areas of concern.
Critics have argued that while some ATAS agents will offer financial protection for consumers through the purchase of Travel Agents and Intermediary Failure Insurance (TAIFI), other accredited agents may not, leading to confusion for consumers.
Westbury rejected the fears.
“If one agent takes out TAIFI or 4000, we don’t really have an opinion,” he said. “It’s a burden that agents themselves must decide they need as part of their brand promise. That is not part of the ATAS brand promise.
“We are not a compensation scheme.
“Most of the agency groups are in the throes of sorting themselves out. What we are trying to do is move the wrangling post an insolvency into the hands of the brands, so the brand comes a champion and looks after the customer.”
Westbury claimed he was relaxed about the first collapse in a post-Travel Compensation Fund world “because we are ready”.
He said a “brand risk strategy” would kick in once the circumstance of a collapse was known.
“There are a number of strategies that we have thought through, and are preparing for, when maybe the inevitable does happen [and a company collapses],” he said.
There are far fewer collapses in travel than other industries which is something AFTA will highlight, Westbury added.
“Travel agents themselves seem more worried and het up about insolvency that the consumer. We need to have a more outward view,” he continued. “Don’t forget that 97% of consumers who book with travel agents have no knowledge of the TCF.”
AFTA will look to build awareness of ATAS though a marketing campaign, largely via social media, but also in collaboration with travel agents. A government-led campaign to alert consumers of the change to travel agent licensing and an awareness campaign led by consumer watchdog Choice, will also help spread the word, Westbury said.
From an initial budget of $2.8 million to fund roadshows, wages and the scheme’s first year of operation, Westbury said there would be a “significant” amount left for marketing.
“We are going to spend every available cent on that first tranche of activity in the first three or four months.
“But if we only get five people joining ATAS we won’t have a lot of money to market the scheme so we need that 80% to have critical mass. We need to have an income stream that is secure to allow us to allocate every available cent on that consumer facing marketing.”
Not that AFTA is aiming to build a high profile consumer brand, he stressed, just something that, over time, will become recognised by consumers as a mark of accreditation and expertise.
O’Riordan said: “One of the major differentiations between the old scheme and the new scheme is that the TCF did not spend one cent on marketing agents to Australian consumers.
“ATAS is very much about a national consumer awareness campaign which will drive business through the door of the travel agent."
He added: “ATAS is about elevating travel standards. They will be vetted against strict criteria."
O’Riordan called on agents to help build recognition of ATAS by “embracing the logo”.
“The more they use it, the more awareness will increase and the more the consumer will understand what the ATAS logo means,” he said. “Ultimately it will drive business through the agents’ door.”
Meanwhile, Westbury played down the lack of public endorsement from Helloworld, insisting it is fully behind the scheme.
It also emerged that the Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO) will table a motion at its AGM on June 11 that becoming accredited will be a compulsory requirement of CATO membership.
“That shows tremendous support from the wholesale community for the accreditation scheme,” O’Riordan said.