The choice of Sally Bercow, the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, as a choice of speaker at this year’s ITT conference has been defended against allegations she is ‘vacuous and irrelevant’.
The Mail on Sunday criticised the appointment at the weekend claiming the controversial Mrs Bercow was abusing her privileged position.
Quoting an unnamed Conservative MP, the newspaper claimed accepting the £2,000 fee and trip to Barbados for June’s event was profiting from the standing of her husband John Bercow.
The Bercows are not hugely popular among Tory politicians, she being a vocal Labour supporter and her husband, although a Tory politician, having been accused of favouring the opposition.
The Mail on Sunday pointed out that the appointment of Mrs Bercow came after the ITT had hosted its Christmas Cocktails events in the speaker’s house in the last two years.
However, defending his decision to ask Mrs Bercow to speak, ITT chairman and chief executive Steven Freudmann refuted there was any connection between those events and her appointment.
“The Mail has had a thing about John Bercow ever since he became speaker and we all know this is politically motivated,” he said.
“However, I have gone to pains to stress that there was absolutely no connection between the use of the speaker’s house, which we have used for the last two Christmas Cocktails and are staterooms, and the engagement of Sally Bercow.
“I have never had the pleasure of meeting Sally and she was not present at either of the two functions we have held in the speaker’s house. It’s mischevious and simply untrue to suggest that there is a link between use of the staterooms and the engagement of Sally.”
Freudmann described the Christmas Cocktails gatherings as charity events at which the profile of the travel industry charity Just a Drop was raised, although no actual fundraising took place.
Freudmann said Bercow fitted the bill as a speaker both in terms of her being a high profile woman and in that she will offer some light-relief to an otherwise busy programme of 21 speakers and 16 sessions.
“She is not liked by everyone but then neither was Cherie Blair, who spoke at our conference in 2009. Our remit is not to put on people who are universally liked but who will interest and challenge the audience.
“She has an interesting take on being an independent woman balancing a career in the media with a family life and living in the goldfish bowl of Westminster. It’s only a half hour session which we hope will be interesting as well as a bit of fun and hopefully she won’t be put off by the Mail on Sunday’s crack at her.”
However, the appointment of Bercow has drawn criticism from within the industry. Having tweeted that he thought it was a missed opportunity to address the really important issues facing travel, Travel Counsellors chairman David Speakman told Travel Weekly: "It's more important than ever when our customers are struggling to afford their annual overseas holiday that the industry does not look like it is carrying on behaving like there is no recession and I'm afraid choosing a celebrity speaker like Sally Bercow gives entirely the false impression.
"The ITT, quite rightly, prides itself on attracting the highest calibre delegates to its annual conference so it is the perfect opportunity to discuss the very important issues that our industry is having to cope with like the state of our airports, taxes, Atol regulation and other forms of government interference.
"ITT should set an example for being in touch with the present and looking to the future of travel. Choosing vacuous and irrelevant celebrity speakers, if ever necessary, is for after dinner entertainment not for a conference that expects to be respected."
Travel Counsellors was formerly a sponsor of the ITT conference but in 2006 Speakman ended the agreement after objecting to the appointment of former Cruise Control boss Paul Moore to speak at the event in Oman just months after the collapse of his company left operators millions of pounds out of pocket. Moore was eventually dropped as a speaker.
Freudmann said Speakman is not a member of ITT and is not among the delegates due to attend the Barbados conference this year. Freudmann described Speakman's criticism as 'disappointing'.
"David was with us the last time we were in Barbados," he said. "Clearly he has forgotten that we always have a light-hearted session at some stage in the conference but that's not at the expense of a full programme which this year is the biggest yet with 21 speakers and 16 sessions."
The main political speaker at the conference will be Lord Andrew Adonis, the former Labour transport minister who addressed the event last year in Venice.
Freudmann said this year he will specifically address airport capacity in the south east of the UK and proposed plans for a replacement for Heathrow in the Thames estuary.
The conference’s keynote and final speaker will be Frank Gardner OBE, the BBC correspondent who was shot and paralysed while reporting from Saudi Arabia in 2004.