The Global Business Travel Association has had a rough ride over the past two years. Its convention in Orlando later this month represents a chance to turn a corner, and it wants to bring the industry along with it.
It was one crisis after another. Complaints of misogyny, sexism, racism and bullying were made against the leader of the world’s biggest travel trade association, and then the pandemic took hold.
Up until June last year, then-CEO Scott Solombrino had been a part of the U.S.-based Global Business Travel Association for 25 years, but members hit out following alleged controversial remarks.
Now, present executive director and CEO Suzanne Neufang, who joined in February this year, believes the organization has turned a corner, and its convention in Orlando, Florida later this month will be a “coming out” moment, she said.
It’s important to note the trade body carried out a third-party investigation into the professional work conduct allegations against Solombrino, who was reportedly paid a salary of $958,000, and concluded no misconduct or legal wrongdoing on his part.
The inquiry started after the board received that letter in June 2020, which questioned the CEO’s professionalism and cooperation. However, Solombrino and the association agreed it was time for him to pursue other opportunities. Former airline sales executive Dave Hilfman became interim executive director, who helped steer the association through the pandemic, as lobbyist Shane Downey pushed hard for widespread virus testing to keep borders open.
But like most of its member companies, cuts were made early on and it made a third of its employees redundant. More recently it has announced eight newly elected members to its global board of directors.
With the controversy and organizational shakeup behind it, Neufang wants to consign coronavirus to the history books as well during its postponed convention, being held November 17-19. The content program reflects the association’s own healing process, with the first day centered around diversity, equity and inclusion, rather than pandemic. The second day will explore sustainability, and Neufang hopes to turn the conversation around so travel can be seen as a problem solver, rather being pointed to as the problem purveyor.
“It’s a ‘coming out’ moment, it’s important for us to get this right,” Neufang said. “The content is quite different, we’re giving the industry the vitamins, and the topics are less about retired sports stars.”
Fewer delegates are expected, with about 30 percent of pre-pandemic numbers registered so far. But the convention is usually held in August, and other major travel, and equally postponed, events are blocking up November. Several sponsors also pulled out during the peak of the controversy, but many have returned, including corporate travel agency CWT.
“Most suppliers who left are back,” said Neufang. “CWT is fully back, others following suit with less of a public statement.” Some pulled out because of their economical situation, rather than a philosophical stance, too. “The passion of members returning is palpable,” she added.
Once the convention is over, there’ll be expectations for some kind of return to normal once U.S. borders reopen. Based on the trade organization’s own data and surveys, Neufang predicts January will bounce back. She’s hearing, anecdotally, the buyer members say they don’t expect supply to catch up with demand, especially with the chase for tourists.
But if the debut of the year fails to provide a new chapter for the travel industry at large, it’s at least a new start for the association.
Photo credit: The GBTA convention in 2019. GBTA