The Specialist Travel Association should rethink its image to change perceptions and help it expand its membership, according to industry expert Richard Carrick.
Carrick, who has held chief executive roles at companies including Hoseasons and MyTravel and now works as a consultant and non-executive director, told the Aito Overseas Conference 2023 he believed the association had had an “identity crisis” for “quite a while”.
His comments came as Aito chairman Chris Rowles admitted membership growth in the last 12 months had not been as fast as hoped with only four new members joining in 2023. Last year Aito announced its aim to grow from 100 to 150 members by 2026.
Carrick said: “I think it’s time for a brand makeover. I know quite a few small and medium sized businesses who I don’t think have ever contemplated joining Aito. I don’t think the perception of Aito [in the market] is strong enough.”
There was potential for significant expansion but the organisation needs to review its relevance in the current market, he noted.
“There are specialist organisers not represented in this room [at conference], whether it be cruise companies or hotels,” he said, adding: “Would you ever welcome members who generate bookings outside the UK? I don’t think there is any difficulty in doubling the size of Aito membership by thinking imaginatively or creatively.”
Speaking on a separate session, former Celebrity Cruises’ EMEA vice-president and managing director Jo Rzymowska also suggested Aito could set its sights higher than 150 members.
“I would be looking at how do we get to 500 members,” she said.
In response, Rowles conceded there could be “some perception that Aito is an old-fashioned members’ club” but stressed: “It’s not a members club. We have to work more on that perception.”
He also cited the importance of Aito remaining relevant but ruled out any rebrand and said he could not see the organisation growing to the size of 500 members.
He said: “We believe we are the voice of small and medium sized travel businesses. No one else is speaking with a loud voice on your [SMEs] behalf.”
But he admitted: “Growth has been slower than we would have liked it to be. We have to ‘reset’. We have to make sure we stay current. To do that we have to constantly change, or we will get left behind. We have to be sustainable and keep what is special about Aito. I struggle to see a vision of 500 members.”
He said it was vital Aito kept to its strategic expansion plan: “My concern is that if we don’t go up to 150 members we will gradually go down until we are not a viable association.”