ATA 39th Congress in Uganda Celebrates Unity and Tackles Challenges

Peter Greenberg, Travel Editor at CBS, combined strong opinions, laughter and solid good advice in his keynote speech at ATA’s 39th Congress in Uganda. Photo credit: Marie Claire Andrea, Africa Travel Association

The Africa Travel Association (ATA) concluded its 39th International Congress November 15th in Kampala, Uganda. ATA, a worldwide trade association renown for its promotion of travel and tourism on the African continent, works with both private business and governments to facilitate cooperation, coordination and action that will create the advancement of African travel.

The speakers at ATA’s 2014 Congress were indicative of its determination to give voice to a wide range of leaders and stakeholders in African travel and also to address recent negative news stories head-on. Government participation in the Congress started at the top, with a speech from the President of the Republic of Uganda, His Excellency Yoweri Museveni and later a dinner hosted by Uganda’s First Lady, Hon. Janet Museveni. Both continue to be passionate about promoting tourism in Uganda. High officials from other ATA member countries as well as U.S. Ambassador Scott Delisi also spoke at the Congress. Airline officials, tour operators, hotel executives, travel marketers, and media types were joined by social media gurus and even a “crisis communication coach” (like Olivia in TV’s Scandal) who specializes in travel and tourist destinations.

Peter Greenberg, Travel Editor for CBS News, delivered the keynote address. Greenberg’s credentials in the travel world are impressive. The author of many books, he has been star of many travel shows and documentaries. If “keynote” refers to setting the stage for what’s to come, Mr. Greenberg delivered. His frank and insightful proclamations on the travel business in general and on African nations’ huge challenge with relentless, extremely negative publicity left the room stunned. He did not limit himself to Africa, but spoke of far-reaching challenges in the travel industry; he ended with a call to action.

Greenberg began by enumerating what he hates about the travel industry:

*Brochures. He disdained trade shows where attendees collect brochures filled with words that end in “est,” like biggest, best, and so on, but say nothing at all.
*Focus groups. These are corrupted with loaded questions that do not prove anything of value.
*Branding. Another meaningless term and effort, in his opinion. “You need a product, not a brand.” He ridiculed inane labels or “catchwords” for destinations that were meaningless.

Another habit prevalent in the travel business that bothered Greenberg was the constant use of words that have no real definition, such as “luxury.”

On a more positive note, Greenberg said, after years of travelling and interviewing travellers, he had some ideas about that consumers do want. “They want simplicity, connectivity, and authenticity,” he insisted..

“The visa situation many African countries insist on is not simple for travellers,” he pointed out, “and getting from point A to B should not be an ordeal.” As far as authenticity goes, he pointed out that the first question people are asked when returning from a trip is: What did you do?

“Don’t sell Uganda,” he advised, “tell Uganda.” Tell stories to entice visitors; people will envision going home with their own stories. They are looking for “bragging rights” opportunities.

He told the ATA members and affiliates that most people in the United States are absolutely ignorant about Africa. He predicted that few could name as many as three countries from the 54 countries that comprise Africa. He named a few instances of “very old bad news,” such as Idi Amin in Uganda, that still live as they are half-remembered by some Americans. Add any fearful story (such as ebola) to ignorance plus decades-old fears and it equals disaster. Governments and businesses affected need to combat this equation proactively.

Greenberg’s insider details of the inept handling of other travel PR nightmares were hilarious, until you realized what damage they did to the travel industry. The account of the incredibly foolish handling of the Carnival cruise ship breakdown just off the Mexican coast had the room laughing, but mention of Kenya’s lack of response when terrorists took over a mall for four days brought a defensive stance from some Kenyan delegates.

“Everything is changing,” Greenberg reminded the audience, “ Airbnb, Trip Advisor, the growth of the middle class in places like India and China where new tourists will originate, and many other changes challenge all destinations competing for business.”

He advised that ATA members who wanted to grow their businesses or grow tourism in their countries to tell their stories; to sell experiences, not destinations; to get ahead of negative news proactively with their own stories, not just react feebly to incessant half-truths presented by the media, or–worse–offer the typical bureaucrat’’s reply of “no comment.”

Of course, even if African destinations can get their stories out, can sell their unique experiences and calm unwarranted fears about ebola and terrorism, challenges that they share with other parts of world remain. One of these is air transportation to some underserved destinations. Although Africa is in the process of becoming one of the fastest-growing airline markets in the world, airlines from North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa face challenges of government regulation, marketing and irregular demand.

Uganda’s First Lady, Hon. Janet Museveni and Edward Bergman, Executive Director, Africa Travel Association, presented and received awards on the evening of the Patron’s Dinner and ATA Awards. Photo credit: Marie Claire Andrea, Africa Travel Association

In his opening remarks, Edward (Eddie) Bergman, Executive Director, Africa Travel Association, gave tribute to the 39th Congress’ official airline: Brussels Airline. He noted that some airlines had halted service to the three small west African countries afflicted with ebola but Brussels Airline has kept its service going throughout the ordeal. Bergman remarked that continued air service was essential to bringing in medical personnel and supplies to help stop the disease in those countries and therefore in countries that might be affected should the epidemic grow. Brussels Airline now serves 19 African destinations and was the first airline in 10 years to institute flights from Brussels to New York.

Recognizing the essential nature of air transport, ATA announced a special event: the inaugural ATA Aviation, Transport and Trade Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. The Summit will take place July 13-14, 2015; airlines, other travel industry leaders, governments as well as African stakeholders will gather in Atlanta. Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Delta Airline’s hub) is a co-sponsor.

During one of the many lively discussion regarding the devastating effect that the outbreak of ebola has had on bookings for future arrivals in Africa from the United States, one participant opined that this is the time that ATA must “rise to the occasion” to fight this crisis in perception and the fear mongering practiced by some 24-hour news networks.

The African Travel Association’s 39th Congress addressed this challenge on many levels. In addition to presenting ideas from experts on how to combat unwarranted fears, misguided reporting and ignorance of African geography, ATA focused on the future of travel to African destinations. Its presentations highlighted the importance of African diaspora travels, faith-based and romance travel, plus cultural exchange, all of which augment wildlife safari tours.

Speakers often played to a packed house at the Congress, and attendees enjoyed the programs presented. Photo credit: Marie Claire Andrea, Africa Travel Association

During various discussions announcements were made that highlighted increased cooperation between nations that will simplify travel for visitors. One of them was a three-country visa that would be good for Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Countries are also coordinating their efforts to stop poachers, who often cross borders to avoid punishment.

Participants enjoyed the music, dances, creative arts and foods of host country Uganda and many travelled to a few of Uganda’s amazing attractions. All of this was organized by the Uganda Tourism Board, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and the local ATA Chapter.

Members from Kenya were no doubt appreciating the hard work contributed by all of the Congress sponsors, since next year the 40th ATA Congress will be held in Kenya!

Africa Travel Association,