The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) relaunched last week with a new name and logo in a bid to broaden its appeal. But critics have questioned the decision to try to make itself more inclusive, with some labelling it a “desperate” attempt to boost its dwindling reputation.
The organisation will now be called The Travel Association, although it will still be known as ABTA. But industry insiders claim it has also changed its financial rules to allow companies who did not previously meet the criteria to join. It will also no longer ask for audited accounts, a move that experts believe will substantially weaken the protection scheme it offers consumers.
However, ABTA head of policy and communications David Marshall argues that the move will make it more representative of the industry, as it allows the likes of airlines, train and coach companies to join. “We are undergoing lots of changes and trying to reflect the needs of members by lobbying relevant bodies on topics such as legislation and taxation,” he says.
ABTA says that it provides a range of benefits for members, including its logo and branding, financial protection and a code of conduct. It adds that one of its primary roles is as a lobbying institution, but it also offers PR support to the outbound leisure market, and a range of promotions to members, including discounts and access to industry news.
Yet the association’s membership has shrunk from 1,877 in 2000 to 1,500 this year, a decline that ABTA says is a result of consolidation in the sector. It also points out that it has a consumer awareness of more than 80%.
In September last year, ABTA withdrew its consumer code from the Office of Fair Trading’s consumer codes approval scheme. At the time, the OFT said it was a result of ABTA’s decision to change its financial protection arrangements, which would not protect consumers’ deposits and prepayments to the same extent as its previous code. Under the new code, consumers are not financially covered in the event of fraud.
But Marshall insists that the financial protection is still there and that ABTA decided to withdraw fraud from its remit because it did not want to subsidise fraudulent activity in the travel industry.
Travel consultant Keith Betton, who is former head of communications at ABTA, says the organisation is at risk of losing members as a result of its reduced consumer protection and that some have become disillusioned with what it offers.
“The majority of consumers are not aware of its new policy, as ABTA only ran a minor ad campaign last year alluding to it,” he adds. “Its reputation remains high, but when it does finally reject a fraudulent case, it may have to face a lot of bad publicity.” Brewin Dolphin Securities leisure analyst David Pope thinks the travel industry still believes ABTA is an “honourable” organisation, but he says it is in need of reinvigoration to provide a more valuable service.
However, he also points out that it does not operate on a level playing field, because not all travel organisations are members, which can mislead consumers into believing that they have protection when they do not.
This year, ABTA has lost almost 30 members, including Globespan Holidays, Anglesey Travel Worldwide and Corona Holidays. Former ABTA board member and chairman of Travel Counsellors David Speakman withdrew his travel agents from ABTA two years ago, saying that membership was too expensive and no longer beneficial to travel companies or the consumer. “Its customer promise is flawed and only offers limited protection,” he adds. “The association is irrelevant to members and is dying a slow death.”