Op Ed: Ron DiLeo On The Demise Of ACTE And What’s Next For Business Travel Industry Associations

Ron DiLeo was the executive director and COO of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives from 2010 to 2012. Based on that experience and his long history in corporate travel, including lately as a consultant and risk management entrepreneur, DiLeo argues that membership associations need to continually reinvent their programming if they are going to attract funding.


Like many in our industry, I mourn the death of ACTE. I’ve read the many comments about the staff’s dedication over the years, how the spirit of ACTE will live on and about the void created by ACTE’s absence. I agree with all of these views. I have also been thinking a great deal about what there may be to learn from this. My feelings can be somewhat captured in the words of the song “Is That All There Is?” recorded by Peggy Lee. This classic of the 60’s tells a story of dreams seemingly achieved, only to be torn down and rebuilt. Knowing the ACTE leadership and the board very well, I know ACTE didn’t go down without a fight. No one is at fault. I’m sure everyone wanted to do the right thing. But after three decades, this is no way for this story to end, and that’s what I can’t stop thinking about.

Ron DiLeo
Ron DiLeo, In The Black Group president and CEO

We are at an inflection point in the business travel association world. With ACTE now officially out of business and GBTA retuning itself under the capable leadership of interim executive director Dave Hilfman, it’s time to reevaluate. GBTA has historically been where suppliers and buyers could congregate for broad discussions, credentialed education and world-class exhibition. They also actively lobby on behalf of the travel industry, as does the US Travel Association (USTA) under the influential leadership of Roger Dow. ACTE had aspired to be an education Mecca more in the tradition of an Ivy League school than a large university or state school, with less emphasis on exhibitions and no emphasis on lobbying beyond collaboration.

What the industry needs is an expanded remit from its association(s). In that spirit, here are some ideas to consider in the evolution toward Association Model 2.0.

The Travel Continuum Series

This would be a lab-oriented experience where people could live the life of a business travel transaction beginning when travelers conceive the need to travel and ending with filed expense reports and resulting data feeds. Included would be confirmation of whether there is even a need to go at all versus using a videoconference. Once the need to travel is confirmed, the “door-to-door” travel experience can be laid out, including understanding how payments along the way come into play. Data flows could be mapped in detail and walked through by participants. I firmly believe that charge cards and payment vehicles will continue to evolve into something much more than providing a means to bill and pay. Process efficiencies can be enabled by payment systems, which explains why so much investment money is going into that component of our industry. It’s easy to see all of this when you are living a process map. Showcased along the way would be various technology providers that include comparatives on how things would work and connect with multiple corporate and supplier technologies.

In this environment, presentations go away. Organizers shepherd participants through various experiences. Conferences could be featured in pre-selected continuum locations worldwide and adapted to the local tech and logistical requirements. Travel management companies, technology providers and suppliers could charter these facilities and custom-develop their own experiences. There was a continuum at Rosenbluth International’s headquarters, and I was part of the design team. It was a powerful tool, completely supplier-funded. The industry could easily replicate it.

Breakaway Whiteboarding

Invite senior leaders from every travel channel (airlines, hotels, ground transport, hospitality, TMCs, AV/small meetings logistics, etc.) to participate in an “invitation-only” discussion to brainstorm next-gen travel practices. The invitation-only status would only apply to discussion participants and there would be a gallery of anyone who wants to attend as observers of each event. I’ve facilitated discussions like this on behalf of sponsoring media publications, and the results are amazing. No, this is not a webinar; it is an in-person shirt-sleeve session.

Diversity In Travel

I’ve had the honor and pleasure to work with Mick Lee as she architected and managed WINiT, which is now part of GBTA. GBTA is now the caretaker and champion of WINiT, but my idea here is to expand a similar remit authored through the WINiT model to include a laser focus on people of color, LGBTQ+ and others not adequately represented in the travel industry.

There’s probably a lot more to think about as we envisage new travel association futures.

The challenge is in how it’s funded. When I joined ACTE as executive director in 2010, I found an extraordinary staff and a board that was seemingly ready to take anything on to keep the association alive. We were rich in talent, and costs were low. But from a cash perspective, we were running on fumes. What was missing in the equation was revenue, which came primarily from sponsors and the industry’s supply side. Asking for more money from existing sponsors for the same activities didn’t feel right.

What I took away from supplier and sponsor meetings was that we needed to create new places to invest. These would feed the association’s core educational principles while providing a proper ROI for the investing suppliers. We created new programs — like the Angel Investor Lounge, 3 Under 33 and Around The World In 80 Hours — intended to move the conversation beyond tired day-to-day travel management discussions and PowerPoint presentations from talking heads. The industry still needs this kind of creativity.

So I ask myself … is that all there is? Then let’s keep dancing and start a new conversation.


Related
• Op Ed: Tony O’Connor On The Window Of Opportunity To Reset Industry Associations
• Op Ed: Caroline Strachan And Paul Tilstone On What Went Wrong With GBTA And How To Fix It
• GBTA’s McCormick: Creating Conference Content Should Be ‘Like Church And State’
• Big TMCs Hire Familiar Lobbyist As Public Policy Encroaches, Uncertainty Persists
• ACTE, Too, Finds Its New Leader From Within

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Ron DiLeo

Author: Ron DiLeo

Ron DiLeo is a 35-year travel industry veteran. He is founder and CEO of The In the Black Group, a consultancy to the supplier side of the travel industry. He is also co-founder and CEO of SafeTravelRx, a SaaS technology duty-of-care provider in the corporate travel industry. Ron's career has included C-Suite executive positions with American Express, British Airways, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives and AirPlus International. He serves on several commercial boards in the United States and Europe and actively supports angel investor groups in search of travel industry entrepreneurs. Connect with Ron on LinkedIn.
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