NEW DELHI, India -- In a keynote address, J.W. Bill Marriott Jr. waxed about the beauty of nature and the sense of place. Separately, Marilyn Carlson Nelson called upon listeners to be stewards of the environment, protectors of cultural heritage and concerned ... with human rights.

Subsequently, a general session was held to tune into global vibrations.

On the surface, the World Travel and Tourism Councils (WTTC) annual summit had become the industrys equivalent of Woodstock.

The event drew headliners (in addition to Marriott and Carlson Nelson, Starwoods Barry Sternlicht, TUI AGs Michael Frenzel and India President APJ Abdul Kalam spoke). Delegates contemplated the joy of corporate self-actualization.

But ultimately, discourse became grounded in the twin mantras of growth and profits, and platitudes were liable to morph into potshots.

Marriott followed an upbeat introduction of opportunities and prospects for travel companies with comments taking airlines to task for slowing growth potential by failing to provide convenient service to important destinations.

Its astonishing to me that more than 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, airlines are just beginning nonstop flights between major U.S. cities and Berlin, he said. Flights are the ultimate catalyst for continued dynamic growth in travel and tourism.

Airlines, although represented at the CEO level only by regional and low-cost carriers, became the focus of other discussions, as well.

A session on synergy became temporarily bogged in the chicken-egg debate about which comes first, passenger demand or lift, and subsequently, over worries about fuel prices. Even Gulf Air President James Hogan complained that he had had to adjust his budget forecasts due to the rising cost of oil.

As in past summits, no major problems were solved, no surprise announcements were made and the debate, though at times pointed, remained polite.

Much of the attraction of the summit is due to what WTTCs president, Jean-Claude Baumgarten, calls the fantastic density of power represented by the councils membership and other high-profile attendees.

And, as it does year after year, discussions bring to the surface the issues that are most on industry leaders minds, no matter what the sessions topic.

This year, those issues were fuel costs (guarded concern), development in China and India (guarded excitement), corporate responsibility (enthusiastic endorsement), Internet pricing transparency (anathema to hotels in the Western world, much-ado-about-nothing in the East) and media reporting on crises (anathema to all).

More than 600 delegates attended, but only 38 were dues-paying members of the Council. The WTTC is an elite club, until recently capped at 100 members.

The council includes CEOs of many of the worlds largest travel companies as well as those with a strong, ancillary interest in the industry, such as credit card companies (the CEOs of Visa International and Diners Club were in attendance), investment bankers and insurance companies (AIGs recently disgraced former chairman Maurice Hank Greenberg belongs to the WTTC, but was not present).

At the closed-door, members-only general meeting, the agenda was, according to sources in attendance, mostly perfunctory: approval of the budget, a review of how the WTTCs crisis- intervention model performed during the tsunami and discussion about how to refine and give more utility to the councils research.

The administrative nature of the members meeting differs dramatically from the 2003 meeting, when the council was in crisis mode, strategizing how to combat the combined effects of recession, SARS and war.

WTTC research released at the meeting this year, however, may provide some insight into why the members meeting this year was so placid: The travel industry is an industry on the mend.

Demand for travel and tourism is expected to grow 5.4% in 2005 (to $6.2 trillion), with a forecasted annualized growth rate of 4.6% over the next 10 years.

Identified risks to the forecast include U.S. budget deficits; an abrupt fall in the dollar; a Chinese hard landing; renewed European and Japanese recession; terrorism; and tax and environmental constraints on air travel.

Perhaps in anticipation of an abrupt fall in the dollar, the WTTC budget is itself based on the premise that over the course of the year, the exchange rate for one euro would average out to $2.

The weak dollar is an issue for the organization because dues are paid in dollars, but operating expenses are paid in pounds (the WTTC is headquartered in London).

There are other organizational concerns for the WTTC. Every major U.S. airline except Continental has dropped its membership over the past four years, which has budgetary implications and affects the organizations perceived and actual influence.

Baumgarten said the organization lifted its 100-member cap in order to grow membership rapidly.  Still, the cost of entry is steep and getting steeper: The $100,000 membership dues were increased by 3%. Baumgarten said the council is negotiating with a global partner for research, which may provide additional funding.

Baumgarten said the council was also reaching out to the cruise industry (currently, that segment is represented only by the Carlson Cos., which owns Radisson Seven Seas) and that the WTTC was developing a plan to re-engage and assist distressed U.S. air carriers.

To contact Editor-in-Chief Arnie Weissmann, send e-mail to [email protected].

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