The spectacular and sudden immolation of CEO Jayson Westbury’s career speaks to bigger issues at the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, which looks badly out of touch with the modern world.
Westbury resigned yesterday after saying TV host Tracy Grimshaw “needs to be given a firm uppercut or a slap across the face” for negative coverage of the intransigent stance many agents are taking on the enforcement of cancellation fees.
It was a dumb and offensive remark from a man under pressure. The truth is he had lost control of the media narrative weeks ago and failed to readjust to changing consumer expectations.
He took a relentlessly adversarial approach to the issue; strongly supported the “legal rights” of agents to charge fees, showing little empathy for cash-strapped consumers while lashing out at mainstream media for doing its job.
Grimshaw’s program, the influential A Current Affair on Channel 9, led the media assault and, over a series of stories, clearly ground Westbury’s psyche into the dirt as he fought an unwinnable war, never once thinking of changing tack.
So last week, clearly at the end of his tether, Westbury told an AFTA webinar: “I won’t ever be watching it (ACA) again. I think that Tracy Grimshaw needs to be given a firm uppercut or a slap across the face, and I mean that virtually, of course, I wouldn’t want to invoke any violence on anyone.
“But I mean, some of the behaviour and some of the language that’s being used on that program is just outrageous.” Ironic choice of words, yes?
And with that he was gone, out the door into career oblivion, leaving the reputation of the reputation of both himself and AFTA in tatters – the story has been covered by every major Australian media platform and will be in the news for a while yet.
Presumably, Westbury had the AFTA board’s support on his black and white strategy. Perhaps he was forced into this unwavering position on cancellations fees, even after industry leader Flight Centre recently opted to stop charging them due to brand damage, now industry-wide.
As analyst Ross Curran from Macquarie Securities said this morning: “We believe the reputational damage to agents during the crisis will take time to fix and the ‘safety net’ allure of using travel agents vs. booking direct has been tarnished for consumers.”
That is because there is no safety net for consumers who book through an Australian travel agent.
Why? Because Jayson Westbury and AFTA fought tooth and nail to end the Travel Compensation Fund, an insurance scheme funded by agents to protect consumers who lost money if a local travel business collapsed.
The TCF was disbanded in 2014 and replaced with the AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS), which is not compulsory and has no requirement for agents to have insolvency insurance.
AFTA saw it as a big win but in the months ahead it may be considered a Pyrrhic victory with further heavy reputational damage looming as more travel businesses inevitably collapse due to the impact of COVID-19.
The scheduled end of the JobKeeper staff funding program in late September looms as a major trigger point.
As for AFTA, it’s tried to distance itself from Westbury’s comments, but a smear remains.
It seems clear the organisation needs to stop defending the past and look to a future where there will be far fewer traditional travel agents (and cruise line revenue) servicing a much more sceptical public.
The industry has changed dramatically over the past three months, and AFTA urgently needs to evolve by providing long term leadership for its members, many of whom are facing enormous challenges, while always understanding that what’s good for the consumer is good for agents, most of whom are female.
Appointing a female CEO would probably be a good start.