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The International Writers Magazine

As a business association JITOA juggles more than one ball
Marwan Asmar

Business Associations are a new buzzword in Jordan’s corporate world of finance. While they had been in existence since the 1970s and 1980s, Business Associations proliferated in the late 1990s onwards when the Kingdom entered a new phase of globalization, economic liberalization and membership of the World Trade Organization in the year 2000.

"Our business association was part of the new economic set up and infrastructure," says Awni Kawar, Chairman of the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association. "In 2003 we felt there was a need to create an association to serve tour operators in the growing Travel and Tourism Economy as it is known in the world," he added.

"Our business association was part of the new economic set up and infrastructure," says Awni Kawar, Chairman of the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association. "In 2003 we felt there was a need to create an association to serve tour operators in the growing Travel and Tourism Economy as it is known in the world," he added.

This Travel & Tourism (T & T) Economy’ with its 10 percent GDP contribution has been growing rapidly and diversified, and many felt the need to create an Association of tour operators specializing exclusively in inbound tourism. It was further argued these tour operators warranted an association because they specialized in bringing tourists from different international markets such as China, Russia, east Europe, west Europe and Britain, United States and Canada. This is not to mention visitors from Arab countries.
Thus these tour operators needed an association to look after their interests. "Today 70% to 80% of the international tourists, and those that come through packages, are JITOA members," says Fadi Abu Areish, a local tour operator and a JITOA member. "And some of our members are big tour operators that have been in the business for more than 40 years.

Recently released figures by the Ministry of Tourism shows the 2006 arrivals and visitors to Jordan stood at 6,573,669, a 13 percent increase on the 2005 figures of 5,817,370 that have been increasing steadily since 2002 which stood at 4,677,018.

All this is increasing the importance and role of JITOA in the tourism sector in creating an institutional structure for the Association, and in setting standards and best practices for tour operators which resulted in the increase of members to 70 in 2006 from just 16 in 2003, Kawar adds.

Membership is growing steadily and this is due to our vigorous marketing campaign which was really boosted in 2006 and is set to continue in 2007, he commented. "In JITOA the issue of membership retention has always been high and we have had little problem in continuing to grow," says JITOA’s Executive Director Ahmad El Bashiti. "This is due to the services we provide whether it is in advocacy vis-à-vis the government and in keeping our members updated of latest decisions and in formulating new action plans whether on the sales tax issue or visas."

These have kept retention high and members interested, although they have been the odd cases who left us in 2006.

"As a result our members have decreased by three to 67, but never mind that since what we are really looking for are members who are active and want to work in the Association and improving the professional standards of the industry," El Bashiti points out.

Susan Stratton, a US-based consultant who frequently works with JITOA says there might be another reason for higher levels of retention, and it is to do with the fact tour operator members do think of themselves as owners rather than just members who are in the Association for what they can get out of it, she said on a recent visit to Amman.

Speaking generally about associations she adds owners don't always know they are owners, but tend to think like customers, what they need to do however, is to act like a team, think as owners and not see every member as competitor, but working for the common good.

We are getting there, Bashiti says optimistically. "Through the yearly retention of members as evidenced by the renewals since 2004, 2005 and 2006, we can say members are maintaining their interest, with many being with Association since it started.

And this may lie in the point raised by Stratton: "Associations are formed because people know they can’t function individually and what drives associations forward is a ‘belief system’ to sustain themselves."
This also emanates from the establishment of an association culture of bringing members together, making sure they are heard and given the chance to speak out," she continued.
Associations have become part of new business concepts in Jordan to be tried and tested. JITOA is one of many business associations most of whom were established in the 1990s and seek to help their member on new business criterions and growth paradigms.

"We are strong on inducing a new business sense through networking, getting members to connect and interact together rather than leave them to their own devices,"
Email shots, websites and e-newsletters are important means of communication, but there is nothing like face-to-face interaction. JITOA has its annual conference at March of each year, but there are continuous meetings, events, workshops and what tour operators call familiarization trips to beauty spots in the Kingdom.
"We found these trips an important part of our work. When we take tour operators to say the Baptism Site in the Jordan Valley or the Amman Waves on the Airport Road we are giving them a first-hand view so they can sell them as part of their packages to international clients and markets," Kawar says.
These Fam trips are excellent venues for members to meet outside the office. Going to places like Petra, Aqaba, Madaba or the Dead Sea is a good way to establish relations and increase the ownership concept. Stratton suggests it strengthens channels of communications, unifies business tools and provides greater opportunity for growth.
But this is an extension of the JITOA approach to improve the business environment as stressed by its capacity building, advocacy, education.
Kawar adds the JITOA approach is being built up, and while members do want an association like ours, it is still difficult to get them to participate.
"While they tell us they agree with what we are doing, we’d like more participation from them because this is the only we can build a strong body that will be effective in the industry and vis-à-vis government."

Things are changing. As of last year, JITOA began to reactivate its committees which include the Code of Conduct Committee, Advocacy, Membership, Organization, Standard of Excellence, MICE [Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events], and Education Committees.
They are very important on two levels: To create a process of institutionalization and development and force the issue of membership participation, says one El Bashiti expert.
Once members are chosen and the committees meet and plan out, they began to make a difference in the tourism sector, but these may take a while, but the important thing is to persist.
"Many associations in the United States just concentrate on advocacy to achieve results, JITOA is trying tackle many issues and to juggle a lot of balls in one hand, which has to be a success," Stratton ends.

© Marwan Asmar June 2007

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