Yet three days of presentations and discussions in the Egyptian capital reflected a newly found confidence among hotel operators, suppliers, destinations and other tourism experts as to the imminent revival of travel and tourism demand.
And Egypt proved to be the ideal location for the Congress, graciously hosted by IH&RA's member the Egyptian Hotel Association. To quote Dr Mamdouh El Beltagui, Egyptian Minister of Tourism, "With our 16% growth in international tourist arrivals during the first 11 months of this year, Egypt is a living example of the Congress theme, Managing through Rapidly Changing Times".
The conference sessions - all linked to the Congress theme - were packed with presentations from a wide range of high-level speakers, most of whom echoed Dr Beltagui's optimism that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Keynote speaker Francesco Frangialli, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (WTO), recalled the intrinsic resilience of the tourism industry but cautioned that the significant shifts in consumer behaviour had altered the very fabric of the industry.
In the current climate of uncertainty, tourists were proving to be increasingly flexible in their consumption of products that were both widely available and highly volatile. Taking a broader perspective, he cited the increased recognition of the economic importance of tourism and the subsequent conversion of WTO into a specialised agency of the United Nations - "putting tourism on an equal footing with other major economic activities such as agriculture, education, culture, health and labour."
For Pedro Ortún, Director of Tourism Policy at the European Commission, among the key challenges facing the industry, perhaps the most critical are safety and security, health issues and environmental and social responsibility. "And there will be a growing need for countries and organisations to adopt sustainable destination management practices and corporate social responsibility," he told delegates.
Speakers included hotel and restaurant operators, experts from other travel and tourism industry sectors, and representatives from international government and non-government organisations such as the WTO, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Office for Migration (IOM) and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).
Among the International hotel chains present were the Accor Group, Best Western, Carlson/Radisson, Conrad, Hilton International, Marriott International, Pan Pacific, Sheraton, Starwood and Taj, and the Congress also attracted senior executives from a number of national chains like Orbis in Poland and Cham Palaces & Hotels in Syria. So with National Hotel and Restaurant Association leaders converging from all over the world, from Jordan to Turkey, from China to the Caribbean, and from Columbia to Germany, so there were ample opportunities for networking among congress delegates.
The three days of the Congress per se followed two full days of statutory meetings of the IH&RA Board, the National Association Chief Executives Council and the Hospitality Chains Council enabling IH&RA's two core membership categories - chains and associations - to share information and identify common concerns. These meetings, co-chaired by Anthony Pollard, President of the Hotel Association of Canada, and Anupam Narayan, CFO and SVP Global Strategy Best Western International, heard:
• Diego Ramos, of Squire Sanders, Madrid, outline the complexity of ensuring data privacy and protection in the various world regions and
• Peter O'Connor, Assistant Professor of Information Technology at IMHI, the Paris-based Cornell-ESSEC Hospitality MBA programme, detail the threats - and opportunities - of e-distribution.
• Cathy Parsons, CEO of Green Globe 21, specifically flagged up the importance of in-door air quality, while
• Lyndall De Marco, Executive Director of the International Tourism Partnership encompassing the International Hotels Environment Initiative (IHEI), advised of the release in July next year of IHEI guidelines for environmentally-friendly hotel siting, design and construction.
• Dries de Vaal, Chairman of IH&RA's Foundation for the Future, unveiled plans to expand the Foundation's summer scholarship programme and increase much needed educational opportunities for young people in the hospitality industry.
At the Association's Annual General Assembly, John Bell, former Director-General and CEO of the Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA) - and now responsible for the CHA's international relations - was unanimously elected as the incoming President of the IH&RA for 2004, supported by the association's newly elected Vice-President, André Daguin, President of the French National Hotel & Restaurant Association (UMIH). Bell succeeds Eric Pfeffer who has successfully steered the Association through two years of 'rapidly changing times' involving major changes in membership structure and streamlining of the Association's operations.
"The optimism expressed by speakers at this important Congress augurs well for the hospitality industry over the next 12 months," said John Bell at the final Gala Dinner, hosted by American Express. "Prospects for my region of the world, the Caribbean, are looking especially good, but other regions of the world are also experiencing a recovery, in line with the improved economic outlook.
"As a result," added Bell, "by the time we all next meet in Istanbul, I hope to be able to report on a genuine recovery and corresponding increase in IH&RA membership. "And I look forward to us all pulling together to make up for some of the lost ground over the past couple of years."
The next Annual IH&RA Congress will be held in Istanbul, Turkey, in late October 2004 and the IH&RA Board of Directors has accepted an invitation from China to host the 2005 Congress.
The International Hotel & Restaurant Association (IH&RA) is the only global business organisation representing the hospitality industry worldwide. Its members are national hotel and restaurant associations throughout the world, and international and national hotel and restaurant chains representing some 50 brands. Officially recognised by the United Nations, IH&RA monitors and lobbies all international agencies on behalf of this industry, estimated to comprise 300,000 hotels and 8 million restaurants, employ 60 million people and contribute 950 billion USD annually to the global economy.
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