“I’m very proud of where we are – we had to reinvent or die”

Face to Face /  / 
Sumaira Isaacs, World Tourism Forum Sumaira Isaacs

Sumaira Isaacs, CEO and president of the World Tourism Forum Institute, says there’s no going back to normal – and that’s a good thing. 

Interview: James Lancaster


Few industries have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic as badly as travel and tourism. What has been the biggest challenge for WTFI over the last 18 months?

It’s hard to think of ‘one big challenge’. Our challenge has been the challenge of the industry as a whole. But, along with the guarantee of security and peace of mind, technology has been one of the most critical challenges. It’s been both negative and positive for the tourism sector. It’s made it easier for some players, allowing hotel chains to adapt to the new reality and create new jobs, but for some of the smaller players, mom and pop shops, it’s been a challenge. How do they materialise their services across new platforms and websites?, how do they get ahead of the curve? It is very easy to say, ‘smart companies will invest in technology’, but it’s an expensive medium, and people aren’t making the same money that they once were.

Advocacy is a big part of WTFI’s mission, do you think policy makers have treated your industry fairly during the crisis? What do you think could have been done differently?

If you look at travel and tourism as a whole, then yes. If nothing else, it has made governments sit up and notice the importance of the sector. Not just in terms of the human need to connect and meet, but the economic impact has been immense. The role of advocacy organisations such as our own has been highlighted, too, because we act as a conduit between governments and the communities that travel and tourism touch. In an era of declining public support and increased need for transparency, I believe it is more essential for us to make an emotional and value-based appeal, making the case for how we support industry, job creation, economic development, and public services.

To be humble. It’s quite clear that we are a creature of nature. We are one with nature, and we can’t fight against it.

The business events industry, which has a close relationship with travel and tourism, has long complained that government doesn’t ‘get it’. Does government get travel and tourism?

Well, I used to work for MCI, I am a child of business events, so I know how governments were slow to understand how business events, although only a small part of tourism, are a significant driver of growth and can ensure a destination is recognised as a place in which to invest and which can contribute to a governments’ economic agenda. At WTFI, we are constantly having meetings with stakeholders from the business events sector to ensure it is high on governments’ agendas. As for tourism, we can no longer support on blind government support, ROI statistics, or visitation numbers to be the measure of our success. It’s our job to be ready to answer any questions by staying vigilant, and by keeping on talking and engaging with our stakeholders.

What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on WTFI’s meetings and events portfolio? 

It’s had a huge impact, but very positive. It’s been a time to reinvent ourselves from a conference-based model to a fully-fledged Think Tank and academic body. We had to reinvent or die, so this gave us an opportunity to do things differently, on the assumption that when things do get back to ‘normal’, they are not going to be ‘normal’, and there will be the need for a new way of engagement and education. But, actually, we have ramped up our meetings. We went from a very flat face-to-face model into a hybrid model. So, our meetings offer has actually increased significantly. But the numbers are telling us that our face-to-face component is also going to grow significantly. So, we’ve really adapted and, without wanted to blow my own trumped, I really think post-Covid 19, the WTFI will be a very good model on how organisations handle change management. I’m very proud of where we are. We kept all the good things we had as an organisation, let go of anything that was just noise, and focused on anything that was critical and built on those.

Do you think the pandemic will result in lasting changes to how you convene? Will hybrid be a permanent fixture? Do you anticipate more regional meetings etc? 

Oh, these are permanent changes! Things will not go back to normal. We’ve got to move on, we’ve got to keep building, and we’ve got to be prepared for change.

Have you found it easier or harder to engage partners during this period – and why?

I expanded my network ten times faster due to work-from-home restrictions, because it saved me time and money, and some of those people I would not have had access to otherwise had it not been for the comfort of Zoom! So, it’s been a huge advantage, not a deterrent at all. But, I cannot wait for face-to-face engagement to start again. Virtual is just like learning a new dance movement – it doesn’t mean you have to give up what you knew already. It’s nice to have Zoom but you do need to go back to the original moves! 

Whether you love them or hate them, virtual meetings are here to stay. Platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom – they’ve almost become a verb now – and all kinds of work from yoga classes to medical appointments have moved online. So, we want to keep that component. But there is the niggling hitch that despite the access to super-digital tools, the importance of in-person meetings cannot be replaced – especially for sales and business teams. 

Travel and tourism have been in the spotlight a lot recently - in relation to sustainability, climate-change, over-tourism etc. How is WTFI responding to these concerns?

The problems brought about by the growth of global tourism in recent years were all too obvious. Over-crowded cities, environmental degradation, high levels of C02, there were already calls for a more sustainable reboot of the travel industry in any case and they had been growing louder, but the pandemic just exposed our industry, for worse where sustainability is concerned. Over-tourism was our main talking point in 2019 and climate change and loss of biodiversity, and these are not problems that have gone away in the last 18 months. So, calls for traveller behaviour to change have already been made – France is one example – maybe increased by increased taxes and higher prices. So WTFI does believe that it is time to rethink and believes in meaningful tourism, which refers to a post-pandemic development of global tourism. It’s all about tourists to get experiences and increase their knowledge and for host communities to be more influential in their tourism agendas, and for the service providers to offer fulltime jobs, good quality service, and more meaningful activities – programmes that are more engaging and immersive. And for governments to gain employment opportunities for their citizens, increase tax income, and support friendly international relations.

Anti mass tourism slogan on wallPhoto Credit: Unsplash

There has been some pushback from come communities and one of the gifts of Covid-19 is that people have become more in tune with the environment and have started to question what’s around them and whether they really need it.  So, our advocacy teams have put together resources to help destination pivot their stakeholder messaging to one centred around local tourism, local immersive tourism, local communities and share value, so we have an industry that is ‘for the people by the people’. If local communities are more engaged, then the governments have to sit up as well. It’s about becoming a community asset that focuses on generating income.

It’s obvious you are leading the WTFI through an incredibly important period in the industry’s history. On a professional and personal note is this something you relish? 

What I’m enjoying the most is the whole process of rethinking and reimagining, because, if you look back before the pandemic, people were on a bullet train, and we were going at a speed that was just not sustainable. Something had to give. So, I’m relishing the pace we are at now. I hope it picks up because it’s good for our mental health and our families and our business, but it’s also a time to reflect and it’s that time to reflect that I am relishing. 

How do you stay sane through it all? Any wellbeing tips to share with our readers?

Try to value time with friends and family. This is what can keep us sane. It’s obvious that we cannot operate on our own. We need to touch, feel, look into each other’s eyes, and enjoy that connectivity. So, whatever time we get with friends and family, we should really cherish that.

The vaccine rollout is very uneven across the world, but there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel now. When do you expect tourism to return to pre-Covid-19 levels?

I'm just so done with predictions! I have prediction fatigue. We’re engaging with governments and stakeholders all the time and every country is at a different level of opening up and they have different challenges. So, we need to keep going and not give up. Do I have a date in mind? We’re already working and there is light at the end of the tunnel. So, if there is a date, the date is ‘now’, it’s already here.

What has this period of turmoil taught you?

To be humble. It’s quite clear that we are a creature of nature. We are one with nature, and we can’t fight against it.

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.


Latest Magazine

Looking to the Future in Dubai
Looking to the Future in Dubai
A Meetings & Incentive Travel sponsored supplement
Read More