As trade body Abta began the search for a new chairman, contributors to the Barclays Travel Forum questioned the association’s relevancy and standing with the consumer.
Andrew Stewart, chief financial officer of Inghams parent Hotelplan, admitted the operator “felt obliged” to remain in Abta because the logo remained a powerful symbol among consumers.
But he said membership of the association came at considerable cost, that very little product was financially protected by Abta, and that Atol was much more relevant.
Former Abta board director John Bevan went further. He said that during his three-year stint at Voyage Privé, joining the association made no difference.
“It’s a great legacy association, but I don’t think it carries the weight it used to. Consumers are not particularly bothered whether you are an Abta member,” he said.
Bevan, managing director at SpaFinder, added: “When I was at lastminute.com we never had the logo, and at Voyage Privé we used it but not with much consequence.”
Andy Cooper, Thomas Cook director of government and external affairs, said: “Abta has always had this dilemma between being a trade association and a regulator.
“Its strength ought to be, and has been for the last few years, as a trade association. The fact it has been a consumer voice ought to be secondary.
“If I had my choice I would probably not start from where they started and I would say regulation is not a good thing for them to be doing.
“Abta offers very little protection to consumers and has not done so for a long time.”
Former Abta president Steven Freudmann, now chairman of ITT, accused the association of not doing enough to protect the interests of its core membership of independent agents.
He said: “It gives me great sadness to see how it has lost brand value and awareness – it is diminishing year on year.
“We used to have 2,500 to 3,000 delegates go to the conference, most of whom were independent retailers. Now membership is less than 900.
“Abta could have been more proactive. There are substantial funds that could have been used to stop the haemorrhaging of independent retailers who were once its lifeblood.”
Meanwhile, the Association of Travel Agents (Ata) is not considered a threat to Abta, according to one of its founding members.
Ata was set up by Abta agents in October 2012 amid concerns that the trade body was not representing the views of online retailers in Brussels over proposals to revise the Package Travel Directive (PTD).
Ata founding member John Hays, who is also an Abta member, said: “I see Abta and the Ata as two different organisations and not contradictory really.
“Ata is a single-issue organisation that will eventually go away. It is not the new Abta, I do not see that at all.”
Andy Cooper, Thomas Cook director of government and external affairs, said people should not be hoodwinked by Ata. “These guys make additional margin because they’re not registered for VAT and they want to keep their loophole.
“Good on them, but does that mean the entire regulatory position should be designed around them so they can continue not paying tax even though they are selling effectively the same product?
“Why should they not have the same burdens? Why should the consumer not have the same protection if they are buying the same product?”
Cooper said he feared the EC would propose the “worst possible outcome” when it publishes the PTD draft in July.
He said: “I fear we will end up with a fudge, with more burdens on people already in the scheme, a few people brought in, but many still left outside.”Elections in Europe could delay the process by three years, Cooper added.
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