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Uncertainty surrounds the largest global group of travel management trade organizations after the smooth sailings of partnership ran aground for two key Paragon Partnership members, the National Business Travel Association of the United States and the Institute of Travel Management of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
ITM on July 31 told members it was withdrawing from an educational event scheduled for just eight weeks later on its home turf in the United Kingdom, and originally co-sponsored with NBTA. The pair had promoted the event, which NBTA still plans to run, as the Paragon UK Corporate Travel Think Tank.
"Our decision arises from uncertainty surrounding NBTA's future plans for activities in Europe," according to a memo to ITM members from executive director Paul Tilstone. "At this time, we feel it would be inappropriate for ITM to proceed with a joint event until such time as NBTA's intentions and the effect of any future activity on us, and our members, becomes clear."
ITM declined to comment further, but the industry compass points to concerns related to NBTA's announcement of a new conference, called the EMEA Business Travel Conference & Expo (scheduled for next May in Milan), without prior consultation with Paragon members. NBTA announced plans for the Milan event during its late July convention in Boston. It was at that same convention that NBTA executive director Bill Connors first approached the Paragon partners about Milan. During the week before the Boston conference, The Transnational, which first reported news of the Milan event, quoted Connors as saying of the Paragonpartners, "I'm hoping to involve all sorts of those folks on the steering committee, or in some sort of marketing opportunity for the [Milan] event."
At the Boston convention, ITM's Tilstone noted apprehension about the possibility of NBTA soliciting members in Europe. ITM has referred media requests for more details to a Paragon spokesperson who this week described the spat as "bilateral" between ITM and NBTA. However, the spokesperson said no Paragon members other than NBTA were planning to participate in the Milan event "at this moment."
Milan "is a recent project and the Paragon members, or many of them, met during the NBTA conference and talked about it," said the official.
Newly elected NBTA president and CEO Kevin Maguire this week told Management.travelhe did not meet with the Paragon group in Boston. "However, I know that the way it's been left with them is we would like to find a way to continue to work together and would like to find a way that there can continue to be a relationship, and at this point I don't think there's been an answer to the questions that are out there." Asked what caused the dispute with ITM in the first place, he said, "In all honesty I don't know. I came on as president right after that. That decision was left in hands of the people at NBTA involved in the Paragon Partnership, Bill Connors and [vice president of business development] Zane Kirby." Regarding NBTA's relationship with ITM, Maguire (also travel director for The Expedition Development Company) said, "At present, both sides have decided to step back and kind of rethink the situation and will come to a workable solution somewhere in the near future. At this point, there's no decision on what that decision is going to be."
An NBTA spokesperson has declined to comment on why ITM dropped out of the September event. "We haven't actively pursued Europe as a membership base and that's not part of the plan right now," said the official, responding to one line of speculation. "We have members in 30 countries, and the recently announced event in Milan will be--for the time being--the focus of our strategy. Initial indications are that it will be a tremendous success, with 90 percent of the floor already sold."
Asked to comment on an Air & Business Travel Newsarticle suggesting that Connors said Italy was chosen "for its neutral status, as Italy has no such association of its own," the Paragon spokesperson confirmed that the confederation does not have an Italian presence. "On the other hand," he said, "to state the obvious, Italy is a European country."
ITM had just rejoined Paragon in February after ending "mutual cooperation" with the Association of Corporate Travel Executives that they announced two years ago. That cooperation followed the abandonment of an ITM-ACTE merger announced in Feb. 2005. [ACTE officials are frustrated by NBTA's announcement of the Milan conference, which is scheduled just days before ACTE's previously announced May 2008 event in Washington, D.C.]
ITM was one of the five original founders of Paragon, which later grew to encompass 12 members in Asia, Europe and the Americas. The quintet that formed Paragon in 2002 intended to move "closer to create a more formal relationship that will support a collaborative effort to benefit the travel management profession and business travel industry."
Asked whether that "more formal" relationship has emerged, the Paragon official said, "Not in a landslide manner, but little steps. The organizations meet two or three or four times per year, and we do have the home page which has to be looked after." He said Paragon also has a "lobbyist" in Brussels.
Today, the partnership represents 11 organizations and the interests of 6,000 business travel suppliers and buyers. Buyer members direct more than $200 billion in spending, according to Paragon. Other Paragon participants represent Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, the Iberian Peninsula, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Outside of the friction between ITM and NBTA, the Paragon official said, "From what I hear in the European side, all organizations are interested in cooperating with the Americans, particularly NBTA. There is an absolute willingness to continue a good relationship." Also a press agent for Germany's VDR business travel association, the Paragon spokesperson added that the same "willingness" applied to ITM, noting that Paragon was "impressed by our British colleagues' professionalism."
According to Tilstone's memo, any ITM members who want to attend NBTA's September event in London still would pay a reduced rate "in the interests of education over and above that of relationships or competition."
"We do not recommend that ITM members who have already booked for this event or who are considering booking pull out from attending," the memo continued. "However, we are not actively encouraging our members to attend this event as it is now a standalone NBTA project." Tilstone also indicated that ITM would communicate to members "the way forward with NBTA and the future of Paragon as it stands today," once it obtains "clarification" from NBTA.
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