I had the pleasure to interview Tom Jenkins the Executive Director of the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA). I met Tom during the European Tourism Day organized by the European Commission in Brussels the 1st of Dec, he was one of the speakers of the panel “Towards a ‘Europe Destinations’ brand initiative?”. The session was very interesting and interactive, bringing together different perspectives, and Tom’s speech contributed to generate an interesting debate. In this interview we talk about branding Europe as a unique destination, EU regulations and how sustainability can be related to marketing strategies.
SB: ETOA is the representative association for tour operators and business suppliers in Europe. How does ETOA view sustainable tourism and what is the impact of “sustainability” as part of ETOA’s business/ marketing strategy?
TJ: This is an interesting question to pose in an area where there is a lot of piety and little action. As an association, we have always been interested in the environment, and the impact that tourists have on the destinations they visit. As we are primarily an inbound association, we are principally concerned with access, overcrowding and anti-tourism movements. These concerns manifest themselves in pointing out that such problems are usually caused by misperceptions and poor planning. As for the wider “green agenda”, tourism tends not to fit. This is not because we deny global warming, nor that it is anthropogenic. But tourism is fundamentally amoral. It is noticeable that some companies that broadcast their green credentials have now dropped them as a central part of their marketing campaign. Among the many motivations to travel for leisure, virtue is seldom a motivating factor. Undeniably some choose their holidays according to “green” criteria. It is possible that this may grow to be as significant a niche as those who go on religious pilgrimages. Tourism is a consumer activity. As a pastime it is inherently self-indulgent, not virtuous. And tourism businesses supply what clients feel they want, not what others think they should have.
SB: During the European Tourism Day, you mentioned that Europe, while not a tourism brand, is a “commercial phenomenon”, being in some cases “more important than the nation states”. What would be the benefits and what the disadvantages of a brand “Europe”?
TJ: In general, people are motivated to visit specific destinations. They choose Europe because they want to see Venice or Paris or Amsterdam. Now in some long haul destinations there is some idea of a “European Vacation”; but the notion, when stripped of particulars, is very abstract and almost ephemeral. Where brand Europe has a major role is when things go wrong. It takes one terrorism scare or one health disaster for an entire continent to be blighted. An incident in Berlin can destroy demand in Ireland; a security alert in the UK causes declines in bookings for Italy. The irony is that these reactions are caused by misunderstanding: tourists were in no real danger. Misunderstandings are there to be corrected. Europe is a brand which can suffer, and so needs protection.
SB: You also mentioned that Europe’s regulation and taxation are “Neanderthal/ ancient”? In your opinion, what are the most urgent improvements needed? And which one is the most important one to realize/ implement in the next 2-3 years?
TJ: There are two pressing issues: the Package Travel Directive (PTD) and the Tour Operators Margin Scheme (TOMS). The first determines how travel is packaged and sold within Europe. As such it casts a shadow over our whole section of the service economy. Adding value by sourcing and selling on different services should be a simple way of doing business, not one which is heavily regulated. PTD has created a tourism market in Europe which sits in national silos. This is a consumer disaster, and one which impoverishes European Tourism’s competitiveness. TOMS is simple. The only confusing thing about it is that it is so traumatically bad that people find it difficult to comprehend. It taxes all inbound services. It grants tax free status to all outbound services. It subsidizes internal land/air packages. To tax exports but not tax imports is a savagely stupid thing to do. But that is what we do in Europe.
SB:ETOA is celebrating its 25 years this year. What do you think, has or have been ETOA’s outstanding achievements and what do you foresee for the future of ETOA?
TJ: To misquote Mr Allen, an association is like a shark: it has to keep moving or it dies. It is difficult to take stock when you are constantly changing. We have been very lucky: ours (despite all that is thrown at it) is a growing industry, and we have been privileged to grow with it. Doing so, we have become an important network – both in terms of information and commerce – for our members. We have done our best to represent their interests, which remains our primary purpose.