There were grumblings and muttered curses to be heard at this year's ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) which ended on January 28, 2002, in Yogyakarta, Central Java. Those joining this growing chorus of protest are the much beleaguered fraternity of disgruntled hoteliers, travel agents and tourism attraction operators who feel they are being "ripped off" and defrauded by unethical members of the travel industry who attend such events misrepresenting themselves as "buyers" of travel when, in fact, they are actually "sellers".
At Travel Fairs, the "Buyers are King"
One of the fundamental premises underlying travel fair operations is that the "buyers" of travel are "King". To that end, "buyers" are lavished with free or highly subsidized airfares; complimentary hotel accommodation; wined; dined; pampered; and ushered into exhibition halls where hopefull "sellers" eagerly await their visit. Sellers rent expensive booths, the proceeds of which are used to subsidize the "buyer's" many comforts. This is done in the hope of being able to sell travel products to the people who promote the packages abroad that send the world on holiday.
In short, the "sellers" pay a hefty premium to gain precious access to the "buyers" - the wholesalers and travel agents. On that count, no one's really complaining. That is how it is, has been, and - until we come up with a better scheme - how it is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
So, what's the problem?
Wolves Dressed in Sheep's Clothing
The problem emanates from unethical and unscrupulous "sellers" who should be renting expensive booth space and sharing in the subsidization of such events, but, instead, arrive posing as "buyers" in order to bypass the security systems and be allowed to range freely seeking customers or "buyers" of travel.
At the ATF just completed in Yogya, there were numerous recruitment "headhunters" looking for both candidates and potential contractors of their services; hoteliers selling rooms at their respective properties; representative companies looking for tour operators to represent "back home"; media advertising space sales people; and solely inbound local tour operators - who were not correctly registered as "sellers" but were criminally taking advantage of a process and posing as "buyers" of travel in order to circumvent their responsibility to contribute their fair share of paying the cost of the events.
Sadly, It Gets Worse
The damage done by these unscrupulous operators is further compounded when genuine "sellers" naively believe the pronouncements of the organizing committee and pay thousands of dollars to meet, in the case of ATF, "300 plus buyers," when, in fact, the number of genuine buyers minus the fraudsters is substantially less.
One example might help illustrate the problem. During the course of ATF in Yogya, I encountered one Bali inbound travel operator who all know operates as a 100% inbound travel operation to the island. Clearlt, all of this agent's "suppliers" or "sellers" are hotels and attractions based on the island, while all of his "buyers" come from areas far removed from Bali. Despite these facts, he managed to successfully pose as a "buyer" of travel and, as a result, was given complimentary hotels and free access to the event. Bemused by how easy it is to dupe the system, this agent even went through the motions of requesting pre-set appointments with potential "sellers" from across ASEAN just to keep his "pretend" role as a "buyer" consistent. This operator proudly showed me his list of appointments with hotels and tour operators who sat in expensive rented booths, waiting for appointments he had no intention of keeping.
Even the most superficial examination of this "buyers" application would have caused someone to ask why a solely inbound agent from Bali would travel all the way to Yogya to meet Bali-based sellers of travel? Obviously not. This operator came to Yogya not to meet Bali operators but to seek free access to "buyers" that his more ethical counterparts were paying great deals of money to be allowed to meet.
Given the Will, There is a Solution
Tighter control on determining who's a "buyer" and who's a "seller" is both possible and urgently needed to restore a degree of professional ethics to how the ATF is run. Here's a few practical suggestions:
- Better Screening of "Buyers". Buyers applications should not be processed unless all parts of the form are completely filled out, particularly those areas requiring the description of current markets and types of business handled. Many "buyers" were listed in this year's ATF catalog with the required company information left blank.
- More Information from "Buyers". Before "buyers" are lavished with air tickets and free or greatly discounted accommodation, the organizers should ask for details on the current total sales of each "buying" company and the number of full-time employees involved in the promotion of travel. Such information would help winnow out those travel agents whose only trip booked each year to the Orient seems to be their attendance at ATF.
- Computerize Completely the Appointment Process. Why doesn't ATF make a one time investment in a "swipe card" system that records each "buyer's" participation at hosted events and scheduled appointments? Those "buyers" who fail to attend, say, 80% of their appointments should know in advance that they will be billed for the cost of their air and hotels. Real "buyers" come to such events to work and would not object to such a process.
- Prosecute A Few of the Worse Offenders. The remedial effects of criminally prosecuting one or two of the worst cases of "buyer" misrepresentation would go a long way to resolving the problem. Two or three of these "posers" getting some subsidized additional free accommodation courtesy of the local law authorities would provide an instant incentive to help the morally challenged within the travel industry straighten up and fly right while providing a palliative to the majority who still play by the rules.
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