DOHA, Qatar -- When the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) held its Summit last year in Vilamoura, Portugal, this elite club of global travel industry CEOs did a great deal of public hand-wringing.

Speaker after speaker, from American Express' Ken Chenault to Marriott International Chairman and CEO J.W. "Bill" Marriott, bemoaned the "perfect storm" that hit the industry: SARS, terrorism, the war in Iraq and a depressed global economy.

That portion of the meeting that was open only to WTTC members resembled, in 2003, a war council, with industry leader after industry leader reporting he or she was bleeding red ink.

And what a difference a year can make.

Though elements of "the perfect storm" still linger to varying degrees, the impact has lessened considerably.

This year's closed-door meeting was, according to sources in attendance, "boring" and "administrative."

On the whole, the 2004 summit, held here this month, was a feel-good event, with a parade of delegates from all sectors of the industry reporting optimistic forecasts.

To the surprise of many, this year's summit, despite being held in the small Middle East gulf state of Qatar, also drew considerably more delegates than Vilamoura -- 600 as compared with 450.

(Although council membership is limited to 100 -- of whom 60 showed up this year -- there is a large contingency of media and representatives of organizations who have a keen interest in what the council does, such as investment bankers, credit card companies and insurance conglomerates.)

In a telling sign of how far the industry has come, talk of the economic recovery and the importance of brands replaced war and disease as the topics of choice.

Ian Davis, managing director of the consulting group McKinsey & Co., said most CEOs he has spoken with are feeling quite positive about the global economy and that there was no concern of deflation.

Davis also said he believed that the travel industry is ripe for the emergence of additional very-large brands.

"The number of large companies in travel isn't commensurate with the size of the industry. There are too few dominant brands," he said.

This suggests, Davis said, that the period of consolidation the industry has been undergoing may continue for some time.

Positioning was the focus during a panel that included the head of a young, successful brand and an established, successful brand, and there was a stark contrast in the philosophy each brought to the discussion.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder and chairman of EasyGroup (which includes EasyJet), said his operating philosophy is "to assume prices will go down.

If you think you can raise prices, someone like me will undercut you."

Richard North, CEO of the InterContinental Hotels Group, assumes -- or at least hopes -- prices will go up. He countered that "as occupancy comes back, price will come back. We've had price deflation, and hotels need an adequate return."

Stelios, with a smile to North, said "there is no more exciting sector than hotels," and that it is "the right time and right place" to launch his "EasyHotel" concept. The first property, in London, will open later this year, with prices starting at five pounds (about $9) per night.

North, whose group includes the value chain Holiday Inn Express, said he would be "unconcerned" about EasyHotel. "It's a different customer. We provide good value for the price we charge."

(Perhaps in response to this exchange, the final summary document of the conference, which focused primarily on macro-economic and global policy issues, included this addendum: "Budget airlines and hotels can co-exist with full-service airlines and luxury hotels; the key is proper segmentation of the market and an offer that provides value for money.")

WTTC President Jean-Claude Baumgarten, former CEO of Air France, seemed pleased with the tenor of the business-focused topics that dominated discussions this year and even suggested that travel and tourism, far from being the victim of global unrest, is in a position to further the cause of world stability.

"Travel and tourism is uniquely placed to encourage close contact between peoples and cultures," he said.

But mindful of the atmosphere of last year's summit -and the most easily identifiable threat to the return to darker days -- he also noted that "safety and security measures need to be continuously enhanced" and "attention must also be paid to understanding and eliminating the root cause of terrorism."

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

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