Recently I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Sion Rapson (at left), and industry expert of merit who has helped the world recognize excellence in the travel industry immeasurably. Rapson, Director of Global Business for the distinguished World Travel Awards, spoke candidly before and after a Q & A for Eye for Travel. The full interview and some added takeaways are cited below, followed by a brief summary.
Of interest to Argo readers, the upcoming European contingent is being held in Athens for the first time. Given the forward motion of the tourism ministry there, and as a focal point for summer European travel, I asked Rapson about his take on the significance of Athens as an awards host city, here is what he had to say:
“World Travel Awards is delighted to host its first ceremony in Greece, a decision that reflects the crucial contribution that tourism makes to the national economy. The Greek tourism sector is enjoying a renaissance, with last year’s double-digit growth predicted to continue in 2014 as it continues to grow market share.”
With so much going on, positively and negatively in east Europe, it seems even more important for industry professionals to maintain a focus on Greece as a key indicator of current and future potential. Croatia entering the EU with subdued effect even with such great tourism potential, Albania’s investment woes, Greece’s situation economy wise, Spain, Portugal, and now Russia and Ukraine, tourism this year has had a blunt share if setbacks. For Rapson’s part, he continued:
“The selection of our hosts is fundamental to the success of our awards programme, and Athens possesses all the ingredients to rise to the challenge of hosting our Europe Ceremony 2014. As Europe’s oldest city, Athens beautifully balances its 2,500-year history with a vibrant contemporary culture scene.”
With that it’s important to note here institutions like the World Travel Awards become more and more important, and not just for recognizing excellent business and innovation. Events feed these tourism ecosystems in ways few understand. This is fodder for another study, but businesses from airlines to hotels and tour companies do well to invest in even competitors in places like Athens. The new mobile, social, and influence effects we speak of, all this adds to a traveler experience that’s good for business. But on to the full Sion Rapson interview.
Q & A
Phil Butler: This year the WTA Grand Tour visits the world of travel from Africa to the Middle East, Europe, and far beyond. In your recent experience Sion, which region has seen the most significant change?
Sion Rapson: The short answer there is the Middle East. We have seen such tremendous growth in some of the key markets there, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to the United Arab Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The scale, vision, and ambition of some of the projects there are unrivaled anywhere else on earth; from the Palm Jumeirah, Yas Island, and Saadiyat Island through to the Burj Khalifa and Kingdom Tower.
With Dubai having also recently been awarded the honour of hosting Expo 2020 – the future also looks bright for the region.
We recently hosted our Middle East Gala Ceremony at JQ Marquis Dubai, with fantastic results. Over 600 industry leaders from across the region were on hand to celebrate, with guest of honour His Highness Sheikh Juma Bin Maktoum Bin Juma Al Maktoum also welcomed to the World Travel Awards Academy during the event.
Phil Butler: Do you think the industry has bounced back, from an economic standpoint? Is there more or less interest in the awards this year?
Sion Rapson: World Travel Awards is now in its 21st year. During more than two decades of growth we have seen lean periods, and it is no secret the last few years have been tough for a lot of organisations out there. However, perversely, this has worked in the interests of WTA. Organisations seek nominations at our Gala Ceremonies, realising the significant benefits a victory can bring – this has seen interest rise steadily over the years.
While Europe and North America are still recovering, the Middle East, as mentioned above, and also Asia are going from strength to strength. China, for example, is an exciting opportunity for a lot of tourism professionals at present, while we will host our Asia Gala Ceremony 2014 in New Delhi later this year as India continues to grow in importance.
Phil Butler: On this, the 21st Anniversary of the World Travel Awards, what has changed the most about the world of Travel Sion?
Sion Rapson: Speed. With mobile technology gaining ground by the month, everybody in the tourism industry needs to be quicker, more responsive and more aware of their competitors. There is no space to rest on one’s laurels now, if there ever was!
The internet, also, has allowed consumers a wealth of information which was previously unavailable to them. Sites like TripAdvisor have forced hotels, for example, to up their game, of face public consequences. These trends will only develop further in the coming years.
Phil Butler: The World Golf Awards is debuting this year Sion. Any thoughts on where golf and sports vacationing is headed the next few years? Has golf focused tourism recovered from the recession yet? What’s the next great golf resort look like?
Sion Rapson: Sports tourism is one of the few areas which was largely unaffected by the recent economic slowdown in some quarters. South Africa was able to catapult itself up tourism league tables on the back of the FIFA 2014 World Cup, welcoming hundreds of thousands to guests to destinations they would perhaps have been unaware of. London, too, scored a big hit with the 2012 Olympic Games, seeing visitor numbers spike during the event, and a creating a glow which is still evident now, nearly two years later.
World Golf Awards, and also World Ski Awards, are World Travel Awards’ attempt to capture some of the enthusiasm of these markets. World Golf Awards, set for in November at the Conrad Algarve, will see us recognise some of the leading golf resorts from around the world. Virtually no other international organisation is seeking to do this at present, and we are very excited about the launch.
Also in November, A-Rosa Kitzbühel will host the second World Ski Awards. The launch last year generated a great deal of interest among the leaders of the ski industry and the 2014 event is set to be even bigger. Skiing is definitely an area to keep an eye on when it comes to sports holidays in the coming years, with resorts in Asia growing to match those of the Alps in Europe.
Phil Butler: Turning to the Olympic Games 2016 in Rio, can you see the surge already in growth for South America in luxury travel Sion?
Sion Rapson: Brazil still faces many challenges ahead of both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. As we have seen from struggles in preparing the stadiums, these events are not undertaken lightly. That said, the benefits of a successful event are clear for all to see. Following on from the success of London 2012, Rio de Janeiro can expect to welcome hundreds of thousands of new visitors, all of whom are likely to be wowed by what is on offer there.
Latin America as a whole is also coming of age in terms of tourism figures. Panama, for example, is spending a great deal of cash on its tourism offering, coming from nowhere to become one of the leading lights of the region. We were in Peru last year for our South & Central America Gala Ceremony and were very impressed with the strides the destination has made, particularly in terms of the cuisine on offer there. This year we will visit Quito, Ecuador, for the event. Following the successes of last year, hopes are very high for another great event.
Phil Butler: From your perspective, which region exhibits the greatest capacity for growth this year?
Sion Rapson: Many destinations can virtually count on tens of millions of visitors every year. Spain, France and the United States are not going to fall from the top of international visitor arrival tables any time soon! However, what we are seeing at World Travel Awards is a desire for something different – a new experience.
Hainan in China is one such example. The government there is spending a great deal of money to turn this into an exciting tourism destination, with its appeal beginning to spread around the world. Morocco, where we will host our Grand Final this year, is also taking advantage of its political stability in a difficult region to grow its presence.
But, again, it is difficult to look much past the Middle East at present. Abu Dhabi has recently reported record visitor numbers, while Dubai is also back on song. With Qatar also gearing up to host FIFA World Cup 2022, there is a lot of investment going in there, which is sure to see numbers increase in the coming years. Oman, is also likely to see more visitors in the near future as it follows the trail blazed in the United Arab Emirates, while it is only a matter of time until Egypt comes back stronger than ever.
Phil Butler: About your career Sion, what made you want to be a part of the world of travel in the first place?
Sion Rapson: After cutting my teeth at the Financial Times, I was giving an opportunity to travel the world working in the corporate division of IATA. This gave me a real sense of travel and the bug literally bit. Travel indeed broadens ones horizons and allows you to understand the world and its myriad and cultures and customs with a clearer vision. I always go back to a quote from T.S. Eliot – “It is the journey and not the arrival that is vital.”
Phil Butler: Those budding travel professionals out there, what’s your best advice for newcomers to the world of hospitality?
Sion Rapson: I think this applies to any sector or role, but don’t settle for a job that you are not passionate about. Think big, think global, don’t be afraid to take risks and always act with integrity.
The World Travel Awards, World Travel Market, ITB Berlin, any number of other industry promotional events seem like window dressing to most people. Certainly there are conferences and award ceremonies that amount to PR fluff or simple money making schemes. As for WTA, the “Oscars of Travel” are voted on by industry professionals and travelers alike. In showing the world and regions the best there is, the awards offer a point of aiming for the industry overall. This is, of course, the basic premise of all such galas, the differentiator being each and every recipient of a WTA award is due the honor. We’ve written about, stayed at, and flown or sailed with, a great many. The bottom line is, such excellent ceremonies help our industry a lot.
For more information on the World Travel Awards, or the three day extravaganza in Athens on August 1st – 3rd, please visit the links prescribed. My personal thanks go out to Sion Rapson for taking time away from his superhuman travel schedule to speak with us.