Nigel Vere Nicoll is Chief Executive of Atta, The African Travel & Tourism Association, which serves travel companies in the African travel sector in 37 countries around the world. For more information visit www.atta.travel.
Miss Mitford-Colmer was a formidable headteacher. To the seven-year-old me, she was the centre of my world. Every month she would walk slowly onto the stage carrying a carved wooden box holding several coloured tin badges. We waited in excited trepidation for the words ‘and the winner is…’, longing to gain recognition from our peers in any of three categories: lessons, sport and good behaviour.
The winners would proudly wear the badge on their grey sweaters for a whole month. I still remember the emotional roller-coaster of hope turning to despair when my name was once again excluded. But that badge carried a mark of recognition and achievement and I still wonder how the winners were selected. (The process must have been flawed, as I never won a badge!)
Our tourism industry has many ’badges of honour‘. Almost every hotel, lodge or tour operator now seems able to describe itself as ‘award-winning’, proudly displaying its commendation on its website and email signatures. Seldom a week goes by without one or other of the 600 members of Atta winning an award of some kind.
Is this all for recognition among their peers within the travel industry, or do they hope that their clients will be influenced when selecting the safari company or lodge for their holiday of a lifetime? I wonder.
Many of these awards are little more than popularity contests, voted for by peers or readers. More often than not the winner will have sent out round robin emails to canvass votes, an arguably flawed model giving the longer-established companies a wider reach.
The process may be profit-driven, with the awarding body requiring nominees to pay large sums of money or to support advertising in order to be considered.
This is not unique to the tourism sector, of course. Even the Oscars are not flawless: film companies spend millions of dollars marketing to the six thousand Academy Award voters in an attempt to improve their chances of winning while trying to get round the rules established to limit overt campaigning.
The problem is that any awards ceremony is costly to arrange and needs substantial funding from somewhere, be it advertising, sponsorship or other avenues. Then there is the judging process. What are the criteria used, how are the judges selected and are potential conflicts of interest avoided? Have the judges visited each nominee to see if they are genuinely worthy of the accolade, or is Internet or email research sufficient? While the Academy Awards panel can watch every film nominated, travelling to each country across Africa to inspect nominees is well-nigh impossible (let alone prohibitively expensive).
So my question: is it possible to establish a fair system with real meaning in terms of quality and sustainability? Is it perhaps time for us to consider a uniform awards standard to level the playing field? Is this our ‘FIFA moment’ – and the time for a radical review of the process?
Perhaps. But then again, I would still have liked to have won that badge at school – and I still have no idea how the winners were selected!
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