Are you better off in or out? Roger Charles reflects on WYSTC 1992, travel trade associations and Brexit
Do you think being a member of a travel trade association and attending trade events is as important now as it was 25 years ago?
The fact that trade shows still flourish indicates that technology has not yet supplanted the importance of face-to-face interaction and the essence of sales at the wholesale level.
At the heart of the debate about Brexit is whether or not the UK is better off being inside the European club or outside the club. Belonging to a trade association has the same underpinnings; there are costs to being a member of any group and one has to calculate that the benefits arising from the group outweigh the costs. As a general rule, I strongly believe that a group is stronger, the bigger and more cohesive that it is and this is why I drove the start of WYSTC as a joint conference. I do not believe that the fundamentals aligned with those principles have changed, although the measure of what the accruing benefits are may well have changed.
What was your role at ISTC in 1992? How did the idea for a joint conference come about and what would you say were the main gains resulting from WYSTC in 1992?
Peter de Jong had been appointed FIYTO Director General in 1991 and I became Director General of the ISTC in September that same year. Both offices were located in Copenhagen, but in different parts of the city. Although both organisations were based in the same city and had mutual membership, there was no official interaction between the two organisations at the time. The focus was quite different for each. ISTC concentrated almost exclusively on student and youth travel and the supporting services (ISIC, insurance, airline tickets, and banking) and FIYTO on language schools, travel agencies, etc.
At the time, I had limited experience in the youth travel industry. My first travel conference was the FIYTO conference of that year in Munich which took place a few weeks after I started. It seemed illogical to me that the two organisations did not speak to each other, particularly as they were both in the same city. As a consequence Peter de Jong and I began meeting and discussing synergies.
The ISTC held its conference in the spring and FIYTO held its in the fall. The FIYTO conference was a large trade conference. The ISTC conference was primarily a political conference and less than half the size of the FIYTO conference. ISTC did not rely on its conference for revenues like FIYTO did. It therefore made sense that ISTC would subsume its conference into the FIYTO conference. That was how WYSTC was born, starting in Rio in September, 1992.
Until the joint conference, the idea of merging the two organisations was never considered. The conference gave the impetus to start the discussions about a merger which included the organisations moving to offices beside each other in Copenhagen while respecting each other’s independence. I drove the joint initiative from the ISTC perspective. The Executive Board of ISTC was broadly supportive of the direction and the conceptual idea of, ultimately, a merger. The conference details were handled primarily by Peter de Jong and Jose Carlos Hauer Santos.
When Peter and I first started working on WYSTC, there was no certainty that the two organisations, ISTC and FIYTO, would ever fit comfortably together. I remember sitting at breakfast at the first WYSTC in 1992 with an ISTC colleague who was looking out over a sea of new faces that had never been to an ISTC meeting. She lamented that the intimacy of the old ISTC meetings was gone, but she recognised the need to go forward in a bigger way. I am glad to see that 25 years on, this still holds true.
What are your favourite memories of WYSTC 1992 and how to did the delegates react to Brazilian culture?
Having the first WYSTC in Brazil was a great way to launch the joint conference because the vast majority of delegates had never been to Brazil. There was concern about the safety of delegates in Rio, so every effort was made to protect them. Consequently, many of the social events were quite controlled. Notwithstanding the weather, I believe everyone enjoyed themselves and I believe the highlight for many was the visit to the Samba School.
In my memory, the best of the events was the dinner hosted by De Goudse, the insurance company. One thing that no one had expected was that the weather was quite awful, but on this evening by the pool of the Intercontinental Hotel, the weather was magical. An Xavier Cugat type band played. There were candles floating in the pool and the moon shone down on the delegates with mountains as a backdrop. It was like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Hollywood musical – one of the most memorable of evenings I ever had at my WYSTC events.
What do you think is critical to understand about youth travel today that was different 25 years ago?
I believe the biggest difference in understanding youth travel motivations today versus 25 years ago is social media. The desire to see the world as an independent traveller is as strong today as it ever was- perhaps even stronger. Today, the world is more broadly wealthier than it was 25 years ago and hence there is greater demand from Asia, in particular China, than in 1992. But, the global immediacy of social media and the mobile phone have increased the spontaneity of popularity for certain destinations and patterns of behaviour that were not possible 25 years ago.
What are your thoughts on the future of travel agents?
In 1992 the internet was really starting to come into its own. The ISTC and WYSTC presented a variety of workshops on the future of the travel agent. Many of the prognostications about the future role of travel agents were pretty dire. However, travel agencies still exist in an environment where almost everything can be done on the internet. Whether it is because someone doesn’t have a credit card or insurance risk or the need for the personal touch, the role of the travel agent will continue. According to a recent article in the New York Times, people are returning to travel agents because it is more cost effective than doing the work oneself. For students this is less a cost issue than a time issue. While the channels of distribution are likely to continue to multiply, which will continue to put a squeeze on travel agent margins, I do believe there remains an important role for the travel agent for the foreseeable future.
Are you still in the travel business?
I am not actively engaged in the travel business, though I do teach courses at university level on the travel industry and remain fully engaged with international student education and travel through a number of post-secondary institutions.
WYSE Travel Confederation would like to thank Roger Charles and Peter de Jong for identifying the synergies that ultimately brought ISTC and FIYTO together, just like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for a magical night by the pool in Rio.
Roger Charles is the President of EBI Educational Group based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in international education. He served as the Director General of ISTC from 1991 to 1995.
FIYTO was the Federation of International Youth Travel Organisations and ISTC was the International Student Travel Confederation. FIYTO and ISTC merged to form WYSE Travel Confederation.