Op Ed: Caroline Strachan And Paul Tilstone On What Went Wrong With GBTA And How To Fix It

Caroline Strachan and Paul Tilstone have been as active as anyone in building and supporting professional travel management associations. This guest contribution from the two managing partners of the Festive Road consultancy blends dismay regarding the scandals now rocking the Global Business Travel Association with some ideas on how to avoid the same mistakes.

Speaking out about an association we have poured our hearts into is not something we relish. We worked hard to build GBTA in Europe back in 2010 and have played a variety of roles in the subsequent years. But if you listen carefully, you can hear the growing sounds of disgruntlement with our biggest industry association. Enough is enough. We are witnessing the destruction of something that should represent members, chapters and partners. Instead the email written by the CEO and sent to staff uncovers a vehicle for egos and bullying. 

We’ve watched GBTA evolve from both inside and outside of the tent. We’ve analyzed it as members, sponsors speakers, and board representatives, and through the lens of two people who have led associations in the past.

We forged our own partnership over a period in the 2000s when we led the Institute of Travel Management (ITM) as the paid CEO and volunteer chair (read president in the United States). Community, transparency and integrity are the foundations for association success. Failure to establish these pillars creates autocracy and division.

To grow, an association needs to balance three areas, in this order: content, members and revenue. Without content you can’t attract members, and without members you won’t attract sponsorship. Only by prioritizing content the members genuinely need can you build positive and sustainable momentum. If you get the balance wrong, the cycle reverses. Poor content leads to a dwindling membership. Revenue starts to evaporate. Or when you focus too heavily on revenue, a not-for-profit association slowly turns into a commercial entity.

You can almost physically see when an association is providing value to our community. You can see members grow and travel programs develop before your eyes. Conversely, the metrics of failure are stark. This is what we are witnessing today.

How and why did the industry let this happen? And at a time when leadership is needed more than ever.

An association is nothing without its grassroots members and volunteers, but its direction is guided by the board, and the board’s tone is set by the CEO and president. That tone, as with this case, is often a reflection of the leaders’ personalities.

Festive Road
Festive Road managing partners Paul Tilstone and Caroline Strachan

Historically at GBTA, the tone has also been set by a third voice, the president of the Allied Leadership Council. By filling this unelected role (appointed by the association’s president), Scott Solombrino sat on the board for more than 15 years.

In the last decade, there was a movement within the GBTA membership to change the articles of the board. There was a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the leadership model which had set the tone of the association. 

It should have been a clear sign to the board that they were losing resonance with their customer base: the members. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was used as an opportunity to consolidate the authority of the board, which united and quashed the rebellion. 

An association needs fresh perspectives to thrive. Whilst the annual round of elections brings new people to the board, they find it hard to make an impact. We know the individuals on the board and we have a great deal of respect for a number of them but they don’t seem to be able to drive the change needed. Of course, you need continuity in leadership — you can’t throw out the old and replace with the new every year — but how can more than 15 years of the same Allied Leadership Council president be good for that fresh perspective? How can a structure like this have been allowed to happen?

So, how does GBTA recover and move forward? 

It requires a long period of introspection. Reversing the decisions not to refund exhibitors or delegates for a convention that is unlikely to happen would be a start. Removing the ability for one or two voices to dominate decisions and set the tone would be another measure. Perhaps asking a truly independent third party to interview disenfranchised members would also be a great next step. 

GBTA also needs a balanced scorecard, a set of KPIs relating to members, content and revenue that drive leadership behaviors. This would help keep the board and staff focused on what matters most. Public reporting would create transparency and trust. Thinking about how to ensure balanced voices on the board should also be important (an idea we previously proposed that was rejected). At present the “Global” in GBTA isn’t represented on the board – it’s wholly a North American board. And finally, questioning the validity of an unelected role (ALC president) when suppliers already have elected voices on the board would also be something to consider. 

An association needs a head and a heart. Now more than ever. 

By speaking out, we are putting our relationship with GBTA at risk. But we can no longer align with the association in its present form. To remain silent would go against everything we stand for personally and professionally. 

We all have a decision to make about our relationship with GBTA. Some will cancel memberships. Others will pull sponsorship. And there will be those determined to see the organization succeed come what may. Whatever your choice, speaking out has never been more important. Let the board hear what you think. It is the single most important action we can take and we applaud those who have taken that action already.

The global business travel industry deserves an association with integrity. It needs leaders that understand the importance of humility and respect. This is a seminal moment in our journey. If we, as a business travel industry, are to emerge stronger, we must together fight to establish the foundations on which a new and hopeful future can be built. 

With Support Wilting, Solombrino Apologizes And GBTA Board Hires Trusted Legal Partner To Investigate New Allegations
GBTA’s Solombrino To Detractors: Give Me A Chance
Incoming GBTA President Bhart Sarin: There Was More To Executive Director Replacement Than Met The Eye
GBTA Executive Director Solombrino Cites Bandwidth, Not Conflict, For Decision To Step Down From National Limousine Association Board
GBTA Hires Former Dav El Boston Coach Exec As Solombrino’s Second-In-Command
How Business Travelers Got Caught Up In Immigration Politics, What Could Be Next And Why GBTA Took A Position Some Didn’t Expect
Another GBTA Chapter Is Under Investigation
GBTA Impels Local Groups To Become Full-Fledged Chapters, Ditches ‘Affiliate’ Level

Disclosure: The Company Dime currently provides content to the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, like GBTA a corporate travel membership association, for a fee. The Company Dime is also in discussions with a private trade show organizer about its interest in launching a new expo in corporate travel. These are conflicts of interest which the reader should consider as part of their understanding of this article.

Paul Tilstone

Author: Paul Tilstone

Paul Tilstone is one of two co-founders of consultancy Festive Road. Prior to this he acted in senior roles for travel management companies for 13 years, CEO for the Institute of Travel & Meetings UK for seven years and chief global development officer for the Global Business Travel Association for a further five. In July 2017 he was appointed to GBTA's board, the first elected international director in the association’s history. Paul has received the U.K. Buying Business Travel Diamond Award for services to sustainability and was listed by the magazine in the industry’s 2013 “Hot List” as one of 30 professionals driving change in the industry. He has twice been listed as one of the world’s top 25 business travel industry influencers by Business Travel News for work in advocacy and sustainability. Connect with Paul on LinkedIn.


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Wellington CostaGaurav SundaramAnn DerySusan SheatsMat Orrego Recent comment authors
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Charles de Gaspe Beaubien
Charles de Gaspe Beaubien

Paul, love your point about content. GBTA has to bring back cutting-edge content that will attract buyers again. Without buyers, there isn’t much money from the vendors and sponsors to keep this thing moving forward. I am really concerned that the association was living off the cash flow from the convention. Another convention seems a long ways away, and we need someone who can turn this around, unite us, while being extremely cash conservative. Not a small task.

Chris Dane
Chris Dane

Caroline and Paul speak for most, if not all of us, on what must be done to right this wrong. We need strong industry associations that we can trust and who are transparent … and we need them RIGHT NOW. We must get closure on this quickly to move forward and implement their suggestions. To do that, we need a fresh, new, strong leader that has the confidence of the board, staff and the members.

Mat Orrego
Mat Orrego

Thank you Caroline and Paul for this great insight and analysis of the situation with GBTA. It is a tough situation to come back from given how wide the gap has become between the organizations’ leaders and its members. The steps that you outline are prudent and would work with a complete reset of the GBTA charter and the adoption of a more contemporary vision and mission. I think you start at the chapter level and build it up.

Susan Sheats
Susan Sheats

This nonsense has been going on at GBTA for years. This board, and those that preceded it for the past 10 years, have turned a willful blind eye. Pretending this is something shocking and new is laughable. Suppliers have been justifiably frustrated footing the bill for this abuse of their financial support. Now is the time for GBTA to clean sweep this board and this tyrant of a CEO, who has been terrorizing this organization for years. There are plenty of professional CEOs who can step in and clean this mess up in short order. The organizational bones are in… Read more »

Wellington Costa
Wellington Costa

Sue, we missed a lot when you and Zane Kerby departed and later Hank Roeder…we were a great Team driven by content, innovation, respect and integrity as a must…

Ann Dery
Ann Dery

First let me say that the following opinion is mine as a long-standing member of GBTA, and has no reflection on my company or role. I applaud Caroline and Paul for taking a stand, and not only speaking up, but offering some valid points, considering their unique position within the industry. The “G” in GBTA has never adequately reflected a global organization, nor has the supplier side been appropriately represented, or treated, over the last decade or more. The association leadership let itself become quite political, and even more polarizing since Scott became CEO and the board caved on their… Read more »

Wellington Costa
Wellington Costa

Well said Caroline and Paul…great insights…Paul I had the honor to serve GBTA when you were on board and we really missed your departure. Ann, I loved and totally agree with your comment about the G for GBTA…we got lost before really become a global association. I have tried hard to show how important was to share and benchmark with different cultures and regions of the world to become really global, but nobody hss given any attention. If things change in the future. please count with me to bring back Brazil and LATAM constituency to help to build a positive,… Read more »

Gaurav Sundaram

Very valid points Paul! GBTA is today only North America-centric when there is so much that can be done internationally. The near obsession with making money means that it’s only “not for profit” in name – this has severely handicapped GBTA in its mandate to be the voice of the business travel community. The board is largely responsible for this sad state of affairs – they seem divorced from reality. This either reflects immaturity or a very strong sense of entitlement and ego, or all three at worst. The staff operations have been demoralised for very long. Finally, I question… Read more »