Last updated: 02:59 PM ET, Thu December 10 2015

Communication and Collaboration: One on One with Paula Twidale, USTOA Chair

Tour Operator | U.S. Tour Operators Association | David Cogswell | December 10, 2015

Communication and Collaboration: One on One with Paula Twidale, USTOA Chair

Photo courtesy of USTOA


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Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette, became chairman of the U.S. Tour Operators Association last week during the association’s Annual Conference and Marketplace at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago.

Twidale is the first woman to have served as chairman of the tour operator association, founded in 1972.

A travel industry veteran of 35 years, Twidale began her career with Eastern Airlines, working as passenger service manager and interim director at Boston's Logan International Airport. She joined Collette in 1992.

Twidale served as vice chairman of USTOA for the past two years under Jerre Fuqua, president of Travcoa, during his term as chairman. The conference marked the transition from Fuqua’s term to Twidale’s term. Fuqua will now transition into the role of immediate past chairman and the new vice chair is Dana Santucci, vice president of development for EF Education First.

Under the structure of the USTOA, the organization has a full-time chief executive as well as a chairman from the membership who serves a two-year term. The chairmanship is the top level of a hierarchy of leadership that includes a 15-person board of directors, including four executive positions: treasurer, secretary, vice chair and chair.

Each person who serves as chairman has already held the other three executive positions. The immediate past chair also maintains an active relationship with the rest of the leadership hierarchy during the term following his term as chairman.

TravelPulse interviewed Twidale during the USTOA Annual Conference and Marketplace.

TravelPulse: What are your objectives for your term as chairman over the next two years?

Paula Twidale: Looking at the continuity of the crossover of Jerre as past chairman, we had a very collaborative relationship. Vice chair and chair worked very closely together, so any initiatives that are happening [will continue]. Certainly I’ve been involved in the government affairs side, so I’ll continue to do that and work on The Hill.

I think those things are paramount to the organization because they affect the long-term operation for all active members and associate members if something comes into play legally in regard to how you can advertise, or how you can sell your product.

We will continue to be the voice for the industry on the hill. I’ll be involved in that and in maintaining that continuity and keeping that vision going forward. Our objective is to keep that relevancy within the organization.

There is a networking opportunity. We learn from each other. We learn from the associates that are here, the suppliers. We learn from other active members. Things that are not proprietary we can share, certainly like security. We’re looking at what is happening in the world and making sure we have those conversations and that dialogue.

The focus under Terry’s [Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA] regime has always been innovation, dialogue and education. So we want to be informed. We want to communicate. We want to show ways of maintaining innovative processes. What he’s doing on the innovation side, and we want to continue with the Cornell Students from the Johnson Business School working on different initiatives that are really helping the active members make decisions.

Last year they worked on the BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China, looking at what it would take to open up a business in those countries, to work those countries and sell product all over the world. They touch upon different things that are meaningful to the members. So we want to keep that momentum going and understand what the members want. So if we can carry out that objective, I think that’s a good way for us to continue making this organization relevant.

TP: In your advocacy in Washington, do you coordinate with other organizations?

PT: Yes and no. We may have a similar message and coordinate in the sense that we may follow the same suit. However, we don’t go in jointly. USTOA has its own position. We have our own team of people, starting with the government advisory committee and key individuals.

Usually it’s just a couple of us, Peter Schaefer [USTOA’s general counsel] is one who is on the board and very knowledgeable, and Terry and myself, going in and speaking with McBee Strategic, which is our lobbying firm, on initiatives that are important to the organization.

The JOLT [Jobs Originating from the Launch of Travel] Act is one of them of course, because jobs originate from launching travel. It affects the economy. It’s all about jobs. But also incorporated in that bill is a visa waiver program, so if there is a problem with a visa, it could be prohibitive to a product that you have spent money to market, and you may have guests booked and then suddenly they can’t get a visa. So these things are really important to the organization.

Also important is the DOT (Department of Transportation). We’ve had great conversations with them. We’ve opened those doors a lot more for mutual conversation and respect so they can understand the position of the tour operator and what’s important to them.

We want to be able to meet their needs and follow the direction that they are setting up. And we want to do it correctly, if you will, but they have to understand that sometimes the actions or rules they put forth have an implication to those rules on our business models.

It could be very cost prohibitive and problematic to the extent that the effect could be that people just won’t sell air. They’ll just sell land-only packages. So that won’t be good for the airlines. It will be bad for the economy. It won’t create revenue streams. So if there is a cause-and-effect relationship we’re going to let them know how it impacts our businesses. So we’re the collective voice of the organization when we go on the Hill for those things.

Open borders, Cuba is another example. We spent countless times on the hill talking about Cuba, getting in front of Senator Flake and others who were instrumental. I met with Senator Jack Reed and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse as a constituent from my state [Connecticut] and was very proactive and it helped us.

It helped us as an organization at Collette to go ahead and go forward with a Cuba program. But it also opened the doors for other active members to do the same thing. Following the rules, understanding OFAC [The US Office of Foreign Assets Control] rules, understanding what you had to do — the information wasn’t easily forthcoming. You really had to dig for it: what’s the process and can I do it effectively so I can do it in a timely fashion and be able to market the program.

So those are the kinds of issues we deal with on the hill.   

TP: Can you tell us more about your interest in the JOLT Act?

PT: Travel is an economic driver for jobs.

Safety and security is important, but we want to encourage people to travel because travel and tourism is the third largest industry next to agriculture and manufacturing in the United States. It’s an economic driver. So anything surrounding that bill is going to help us create jobs. And even President Obama’s goal is to have 100 million visitors to the United States. Why? Because they spend money.

I think the average is $4,500 per person they spend coming inbound. So any time a person travels to or fro, it’s an economic driver. It puts money into that area. But also it’s sustainable for all the other entities that will actually cover the tourism, whether it be the hoteliers, the cab driver, the food service industry, drivers that bring food to the hotel, and so on. That’s all part of it. Travel and tourism is a big part of it.

Embedded in that bill certainly is a piece of the visa waiver program that they’re working on. The goal is to minimize paper, minimize the turnaround time so it’s not so onerous and doesn’t take such a long time to obtain a visa. And also countries that could have an easier process coming into the United States, conversely it makes it easier for Americans to go to those countries. There’s all that reciprocity. When taxes and visas become problematic in any country, reciprocity takes hold and suddenly it becomes hard for an American to visit those countries. (Editor's note: This interview was conducted prior to the House passing The Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act Of 2015).

It takes away from the ability to travel and to support those countries and support the travel that these members are putting out in their brochures and spending countless number of hours building product and sending product managers abroad to create something that’s experiential and putting marketing money into it and then operationally executing it. So we want to sustain it by having customers actually travel to the destination. It comes full circle. That’s what the JOLT Act does. It supports the economic engine for travel.

TP: What is your view of the effect of fear in the wake of events in Paris and now San Bernadino?

PT: We can speculate and I don’t want to do that, but of course the general public will speculate on what is going to happen. We certainly pray for peace and hope for things to settle down. What I think could be problematic is the wrong message getting out. I say that because of the State Department putting out a notice of caution. Putting out a caution sends the wrong message because people don’t understand what that means. The State Department’s intent I think was to remind people to be vigilant and take extra time to get to the airport earlier, taking extra measures as there will be more going through bags – being proactive, that was the intent.

Unfortunately the general public doesn’t understand that that was the intent. The levels are that there’s a caution, there’s an alert and there’s a warning. We weren’t in an alert or warning stage. And to carry it out to say magically it’s going to be until Feb. 24 sends the wrong message.

So we hope people will continue to travel. Be vigilant. Be knowledgeable. We have an ear to the ground. That’s what we do as an organization, as active members. We’re credible. We’re certainly risk averse. We’re not going to put somebody in harm’s way. We’ll look at what’s happening in any region and make some intelligent decisions. If something needs to be changed we change it. Safety comes first.

We don’t want people to shy away from traveling in general. We talk about Paris versus California. So what do you do? You stop living?

You don’t succumb to fear. So hopefully the message will get out that the intent was to say “Be vigilant” and we’re going to be more proactive looking at these things. At any given time trouble can be on your doorstep, and we want to prevent that. But it doesn’t mean that you should be frightened or overcome by fear or succumb to that fear and not make decisions to live your life and have the freedom and flexibility to travel.

That’s what the open borders are about, whether it’s Cuba or anywhere else. That was the same premise. We want the freedom and flexibility to travel anywhere in the world. We may choose not to go. That’s our prerogative. That’s the pitch I made to senators and congressmen if they weren’t in favor of it. I said, “Why would you prohibit someone from going? Why would you tell them the couldn’t go?”

If it’s unsafe you can give them a warning. But there are places that have warnings that people still go to. That’s their prerogative. It’s a fundamental freedom we shouldn’t be robbed of.

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