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GBTA's Suzanne Neufang discusses:
The Global Business Travel Association unveiled a new brand at its annual convention in August, a sign of renewal as the industry emerges from the pandemic shutdown and as the organization works to rebuild its industry leadership and advocacy after a period of disarray that culminated in the exit of its previous CEO in the summer of 2020. The success of the convention, which according to GBTA hosted 4,626 participants Aug. 15-17 in San Diego, offered the organization an adrenaline rush after it suffered a rough re-entry for its in-person events late last year, with Covid restrictions and postponements. GBTA CEO Suzanne Neufang following the convention spoke with BTN editorial director Elizabeth West about the organization’s renewed vision and what to expect next. Edited excerpts follow.
BTN: The GBTA rebrand was a centerpiece of the convention in San Diego. What did the rebrand mean to you personally, and what are you hoping it will mean to the industry?
Suzanne Neufang: On a personal level, surrounded by my team and the GBTA board of directors who were on stage with me [during the brand reveal], the new brand represents 18 months of work for me and 24 months of work for many others in not just rescuing an industry but rescuing an association and looking at what is important and what is our true north. For me, it’s also about the motivation and the optimism we have in the members we serve and why we do our jobs every day.
On a macro level, it's important for us to show that we have evolved through crises and have been able to reorganize and refocus. We have a new level of political advocacy [happening] in Washington, Ottawa, Brussels and London. We [need to raise awareness] around business travel as an economic engine, draw more attention to business travel as a career opportunity and support career advancement in our industry. We also need to look at our future in terms of sustainability, which will define how our industry evolves over the next 30 years. Our new branding sets us up for those serious conversations that need to happen going forward.
BTN: Two new direct board members were elected during the convention—EY's Barbara Rose at EY and Cengage Learning's Sue Spear—as was an allied board member, Southwest’s Kevin Sullivan. These and other recent board changes represent quite a lot of turnover at the board level. What are you looking for from the board now?
Neufang: All three of these [new board members] have had solid career tracks and volunteerism for GBTA, and have built their reputations in GBTA through local, regional and global involvement in our programs. We love to have people on the board who been a part of the joys but also the blood, sweat and tears that go into [GBTA’s] program evolution like Ladders and other programs. We just had the orientation this week for them, and [board president] Denise Truso is already working with them on where they get involved. So there’s this new spirit … and new passion that comes with these new board members. We ask for their engagement and for them to take the opportunities to be there for the GBTA staff when we need them.
BTN: I also understand that since stepping away from Best Western, Dorothy Dowling will be stepping down from the GBTA board and from her role as Allied Leadership Council president. What are the plans for filling that important dual role?
Neufang: First, Dorothy has been a great advisor in my 18 months at GBTA. She was treasurer during that time and the chair of the Finance Committee and certainly was impactful in her advisement. We will miss her. In terms of filling the ALC role, there will be a nomination process and election in September. [Marriott International SVP of global sales operations] Tammy Routh is the sitting ALC vice president. She and Dorothy are running the process, and Denise is very involved. Of course, the ALC is one of those mentioned in our bylaws as a required council. So it’s a really important advisor group for GBTA and one that helped me tremendously last year when we [had to move the convention dates] from July to November for the Orlando convention. And, as you know, whoever becomes president of the ALC automatically gets seated on the board of directors, so that’s also a really important role.
BTN: Do you have any indication of who might be stepping forward?
Neufang: I don’t have that indication yet.
As we go forward with a clean slate of governance and renewed bylaws, it gives us a chance to really prove ourselves and make sure we’re transparent going forward.”
BTN: You mentioned the bylaws previously. You’ve had 12 months to see an impact of recent bylaw changes. Have you been able to put your finger on the impact so far?
Neufang: Certainly, with terms limits and other things that were new in these sets of bylaws, there will be faster turnover of the board. Half will turn over every two years starting, really, next year. There were some members who had three-year roles last year. But I also think [we’ve seen an impact] in the level of programming we’ve been able to deliver by understanding where members really want us to go with it. At heart, all the bylaw changes were member led [through a large member taskforce] and approved.
So I think as we go forward with a clean slate of governance and renewed bylaws, it gives us a chance to really prove ourselves and make sure we’re transparent going forward, both with the board and how it runs, but also how we run our programs and the rest of our finances as 501c6 and a 501c3.
BTN: The 501c3 is the re-launched GBTA Foundation. I understand Ladders and WinIt are getting rolled up into the foundation as well. Tell me more about those plans.
Neufang: The purpose of our relaunch was really to put the foundation within a sustainability framework, with that framework being both "planet" and "people." It was clear that not only should the new Sustainability Leadership Council go there but also Ladders and WinIt, [the latter two] are both focused on career advancement and leadership. Under the auspices of our new foundation board of directors, these are areas of passion. We want to use their brains and hearts to guide how we evolve those programs. That said, we also still have the Sustainability Committee and the DE&I Committee that roll up into the 501c6—which is the tradeshow organization—in terms of governance. [This is] primarily because the bylaws outline [certain structural requirements for committees], but the committees and the foundation will be closely aligned and work together. Certainly, this is an area where we don’t really want to see those groups competing. With people and planet, we all need to be working together in a way that’s easier, faster and better.
BTN: How are local chapters fitting into GBTA’s holistic picture now?
Neufang: The chapters have been the lifeblood of GBTA and NBTA before that, for 54 years. The chapters are the place where we can understand what’s happening on a local level, which is important to GBTA. But also from a U.S. national perspective they’re super important. We have lots of [chapter] engagement at the U.S. Legislative Summit. We also work with them for advocacy initiatives at the national level… when we have emailing campaigns [to legislators], so they are super important for our political action committee, which is very U.S.-centric.
BTN: How are your working with chapters to nurture future GBTA leaders?
Neufang: Member engagement is so important and that happens at the local level. People who run for the board come from those chapter beginnings, where they first start their advocacy work. Often, chapter officers rise up to become GBTA national or regional or sometimes global committee chairs and vice chairs. So there’s a funnel through which membership and volunteerism can come together.
We also know that we hold joint responsibility for getting membership back up across the industry. That includes attracting talent to the industry [to fill jobs], not just talent for volunteers that move up in our organization. Those jobs are local, so it's really important that we work together on getting the getting talent back into the industry at all levels—not just career levels but also generations as well. We need to attract youth coming up in the industry but also those people interested in taking a sidestep from other industries into ours. Business travel is a super cool industry an deserves to be looked at by every job seeker out there.
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