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.

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