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Does the industry need to raise its voice?

Stanley Slaughter asks exactly how loud the business travel community must shout to attract the British government's attention.

The results of new research announced this week by the UK and Ireland Institute of Travel and Meetings (ITM) revealed that its buyer members wanted more engagement with the government over business travel industry issues.

To a series of questions on broad industry issues, the buyers said they wanted more engagement with the government on matters like taxation, airport expansion and the use by airlines of data.

Mark Cuschieri, a leading member of ITM’s Industry Affairs Group which commissioned the research, said: "They want better engagement from government and NGOs who create policy affecting the business travel community as there are numerous areas of concern."

These results add to a growing feeling that governments – not just this one – do not pay anywhere near enough attention to the industry’s concerns and views.

Clearly anyone in government, especially those nearer the top of the pole, must get inundated by special interest groups pleading their particular case. And equally clearly, not all, or even most requests and demands can be satisfied.

But there is a good argument to be made that travel is a special case, not an isolated interest group but one that is vital to the wellbeing of the country. Too often business and leisure travel get lumped together as one. While the functions are similar and their interests and concerns can overlap, they are in reality two separate entities.

Government ears prick up when leisure travel gets in the news: cancelled holidays mean unhappy constituents and possibly lost votes. Business travel, far more a behind the scenes activity, does not merit the same attention. Judging by the way the government conducts its own business travel management, there is good reason to think it does not understand the industry or its purposes.

But it is a multi-billion pound industry which provides the means for businessmen and women to go out and win major contracts which create wealth and jobs. A crucial function in these hard pressed times.

But if the industry wishes to engage with governments over industry issues, the people in power seem less than willing to oblige. ABTN well remembers a stark example of government indifference a few years back. At a Parliamentary lunch given by the then Guild of Business Travel Agents (now the GTMC), its then chairman, the authoritative Don Lunn made a thoughtful speech about the industry and its needs, a little bit of a shopping list, for the main guest, the minister for transport to consider.

In reply this time-serving nonentity simply read out a speech almost certainly written by a civil servant who knew nothing of business travel. There was no attempt to address any of Lunn’s points and the minister sat down no doubt thinking nothing was amiss and it was another ‘job well done'.

Things have improved since that low point. We seem to have learnt from the Americans the need to lobby those in power more aggressively. Kevin Mitchell’s Business Travel Coalition and the former NBTA (now the GBTA) are and were past masters of putting their business travel case to US politicians and to the media.

ITM and GTMC both now lobby on a more regular basis – the latter organisation now employs experts to do so on its behalf. Paul Tilstone, the outgoing CEO of ITM, told ABTN that it was hard going in the UK. In his new post as managing director of GBTA Europe, he is already lobbying bureaucrats in Brussels and, so far, he is finding them more receptive.

“You could say I have been pleasantly surprised in the short time that I have been engaged with them through GBTA. This was with the CRS regulations. It worked relatively well,” he said. “You need a campaign approach and you need to find the right person to speak to. When you get access, they are more open than the UK government.”

What is worrying about two of the current major concerns of the industry, airport expansion and Air Passenger duty (APD), is that whatever approaches have been made, be it by airlines like BA, industry bodies or individuals, the government has barely budged.

Minor concessions have been made in APD in Northern Ireland, but on the mainland, the government announced only last week it was going ahead with the double inflation sized increase in APD next spring.

On airport expansion and a UK aviation policy – or currently, a lack of one, the industry has had no success at all so far. There is increasing evidence that congestion at Heathrow, where the government has said it will not build a third runway, is causing immense problems and driving customers away.

This week, BAA which runs the airport, in announcing its figures for November, commented: “Domestic passenger numbers continue to decline, by 12.3% in November, as a result of reduced flights. This sustained domestic decline reflects the UK regions being progressively cut off from the UK’s only hub airport by a lack of capacity at Heathrow.”

Airports which offered flights to continental hubs like Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam enjoyed an increase in such business, BAA said. In short business was moving away from Heathrow to rival airports.

The message of this seems to be that the industry, however hard it is lobbying, is not enjoying much return on its efforts. While it would help if it spoke, on at least some mutual issues, with one voice, this does not augur well.

Business travel is vital to the country’s economy – but how do you get the government to listen?

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