Pauline Suharno: Empower to transform

Pauline Suharno, president of Association of the Indonesian Travel Agents (ASTINDO), who has been elected new President of the Federation of ASEAN Travel Agents (FATA), shares about her views on empowering the association

FATA is an established association in ASEAN, but there is always room for improvement. In what ways should FATA improve?
FATA has been established for decades, but I still hear people ask “what is FATA?” and “do you mean PATA?”. The branding of our organisation needs to be revitalised. We need to inform the world who we are and what we do. When looking for travel agencies in (South-east Asia), people should immediately think of FATA.

What are you going to do about that?
We need to start from within the organisation. Presently, FATA members are represented by the president of the national associations of ASEAN countries or their official representatives. The FATA presidency period and the chairmanship period of their associations at home are different – this is the problem. We often see changes of representatives at the FATA Board when a national association election takes place and a new president is elected, making it difficult to form a solid team to create workable programmes. With the pandemic, meetings and discussions could only be done online, making it more challenging for board members to bond. For the board to work effectively, such chemistry is important.

Secondly, we need ASEAN members to understand the benefits of becoming members, otherwise this organisation will not be able to grow. Currently, not all 10 member countries have joined FATA. Also, some countries have more than one travel agency-related association that we hope to attract. For example, in Indonesia, there are ASTINDO, ASITA and IINTOA, which is an inbound specialist association.

Those seem to be fundamental issues in an organisation. How can this change?
National association members should appoint a representative to sit at FATA, who can dedicate their time and thoughts in the organisation. The representatives do not have to be the associations’ presidents themselves, as they may be too busy managing their own associations.

FATA also needs to have an executive director, who will run the programmes set by the board. The executive director will also be the one to consistently attend the meetings.

Does FATA have the budget to finance it?
While the spirit of togetherness is high in ASEAN, budget is always an issue. We need to create programmes and activities that both benefit members and bring in income. We also need to develop partnerships with NTOs and other organisations.

Before the pandemic, FATA had successfully organised FATA Convention twice. We had an NTO sponsor who hosted the events in Malaysia and Thailand, and participants who paid registration fees. The event discussed trends and issues faced by the travel industry and provided a means for participants to network with others.

During the pandemic, ASTINDO held an online travel mart inviting buyers from FATA to attend as buyers – something that other FATA members could do in their markets, so that there will be more intra-ASEAN B2B events than the annual ASEAN Tourism Forum.

At ASTINDO, we also started off from nothing to creating programmes with regional and international NTOs to promote destinations. The Indonesian government noticed our active role at ASEAN forums, and the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy appointed us to handle a fam trip a couple of years ago. We contacted our counterparts at FATA to select and invite their members who had Indonesia in their market mix to join. Such activities help our national association members to scale up their businesses. Without our executive director’s support, the ASTINDO board would otherwise not be able to work effectively.

So, FATA needs an executive director. Previously, Hamzah Rahmat had volunteered as executive CEO of FATA and was behind the success of FATA Conventions. However, we cannot expect volunteers (all the time) and will need to work on the budget for one.

Do you think such events are key to attracting more membership?
It will be useful (to) create more awareness but that is not all FATA can and should do.

An association provides a platform for members to share best practices for the counterparts to learn, and takes on the role of a firefighter. It solves common problems faced by its members, such as insurance or bank guarantee issues with airlines.

FATA will bring up these issues to the international level by talking to IATA on behalf of associations in ASEAN member countries.

For example, during the pandemic, IATA issued a no-refund policy for unused issued tickets because the airlines were also running out of funds. Instead, they issued vouchers for later use. FATA, through dialogues with the regional IATA in Singapore, managed to get IATA approval for cash refund. However, only those who took the effort to collect data from their national associations’ members and submitted data got their money back.

That is just one example of how FATA is beneficial for its members. However, members will need to actively do their part so that their national association members can enjoy the benefits, such as actively participating at FATA meetings and informing their associations at home of our plans and discussions.

Looking at the internal issues still pertaining, how long will it take for the FATA brand to be established?
It is a big job and will take time, but we need to start somewhere. I would like the FATA board to meet more often – currently, the meetings take place four times a year. The interval is too long to plan for a programme. We could add more online meetings, which we have become so used to during the pandemic.

In terms of programme implementations, it won’t be easy to equate visions of all member countries so we will start with pilot projects. On the NTO level, the ASEAN spirit of togetherness is ultimate. A programme can be implemented only when all members have ratified it, but we do not want that with our programmes. Those with similar vision can start first. When it works, the rest will hopefully join in.

We will be reactivating our FATA website and improving our social media presence.

We would also like to restart the FATA Convention. Manado, North Sulawesi has indicated its interest to host and I will be following up on it.