The official opening of ITAA Conference 2021

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Paul Hackett, President of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) gave his opening speech for the ITAA Annual Conference in Évora Portugal, today 15th October

The ITAA Annual Conference is a highlight of the travel trade and press calendars in Ireland. It provides an opportunity to meet with industry colleagues from home and abroad. While the Conference was cancelled in 2020 to ensure the safety and comfort of all delegates, it’s now in full swing from today, Friday, 15th October 2021 in Évora Portugal (with golf on the 14th!).

Here are some highlights of the Conference so far:

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To kick off the Conference, Paul Hackett, President of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) gave his opening speech below: 

Reboot, Restart, Now! – The Essential Restart Toolkit

Thank you and welcome to you all, in particular Secretary of State for Tourism, Portugal Rita Marques, Mayor of Évora Municipality Carlos Pinto de Sá, and President of Alentejo Tourism Office Vitor Silva.

Thank you for attending what I think, for many of us, will be our first face-to-face, ‘real people’, conference since the pandemic. As members and suppliers and media, you have taken the time and paid money to be here and thank you for that. 

It is with a sense of awe, satisfaction and relief that I address you this morning in Évora. 

As most of you know, Évora is an ancient city with some of the most picturesque ruins in Europe and a sight that is worth coming a long way to see, the Church of the Bones. All of those human remains stacked against the walls of that church are supposed to remind us of our mortality. 

For a while, it looked like we would be bringing the bones of the travel industry to this conference, to add to the pile, as a reminder that industries, too, live and die.

This did not happen. Our gathering today is evidence of that.

That we survived is down to the people in this room, their resilience, their courage, their ingenuity and their ability to overcome short-term difficulties and take a long-term view, in the midst of the worst crisis our industry and our society has ever known.

It is down to the support of our partners and suppliers, many of them in this room, who saw that collaboration was a way out of the crisis, and were willing to show patience and forbearance as they faced difficulties themselves. 

It is down to the support of people like Susana Cardoso and the Portuguese Tourist Board, who were willing to wait and help us see things through when the situation was changing weekly, daily, and even hourly.

It is down to those arms of Government in Ireland, who were willing to help, with supports at business level and payments to employees. 

It is NOT down to the crude policies and public opinion which, in the face of an unseen adversary, identified travel as a threat and did everything in their power to try to destroy the industry and those who made their living from it. Those threats have not gone away. But thankfully, the supports have not gone away either.

Drawing on the extensive knowledge in this room, over the coming hours, we will be looking at what we need to do to haul ourselves through the next phase of events, what we did right, and how we can rebuild a thriving travel industry for our members.

A key objective must be to prevent collapses. These impact all of us. It is in all our interests that the sector recovers strongly and that our members are in a good place to build a recovery. When we are allowed, we are bloody good at what we do. In the year before the pandemic, our sector was licenced to the value of €1.4 billion. 

Today, we should take a moment to pause to recognise what we have achieved over the last 20 months, that we and our businesses are still standing. That is a massive achievement, and we should be proud of that. If we had known in March 2020 that the industry would be locked down for a year and a half, few of us would have been certain that we could have coped with that prospect. 

The Irish Travel Agents Association was never as badly needed as in the past twenty months, and we have risen to the challenge. 

It showed we are not just about camaraderie and conversations, but are prepared to mobilise our resources to provide a structured response to an existential crisis.

The benefit of the ITAA’s response needs some elaboration and will be discussed this morning. It has helped some of us keep our businesses together. It has certainly provided many of us with the personal support to get through what has possibly been the toughest period of our careers. 

We have learned that we can punch way above our weight given the number of members, number of travel agents, and number of staff. The ITAA is clearly seen as the voice of travel in Ireland. When it was most needed, we spoke as one voice and made every effort to include the consortia and other groups to ensure good communication across the sector. Amongst trade bodies, we are up there with the Licensed Vintners Association and the Restaurants Association of Ireland, both of whom are considerably better resourced than we are. 

Now we need to replicate the way we worked together, collaborated and acted in partnership to overcome the other challenges that have not gone away, around insurance, merchant services, supplier challenges and the rest. 

Having found our voice and played to our strengths, we need to continue doing so. We need to replicate the way we have worked together in the last 20 months. 

We are an association of competitors, but we are also an association of allies, supporting each other, sharing best practice. We have learned that when facing a powerful adversary, the twin threat of Covid and some mistaken ideas of how Covid can be countered, the sharing of information has made us stronger. 

Ireland’s travel industry has a future.  

It is time to prepare for the new business environment facing us in the world after Covid.  

It is time to Reboot and to Restart. 

Let the conference begin. 

For more on the Conference, visit itaa.ie

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Shauna McCrudden

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