A familiar figure in the NYC area tour and travel industry, Jonathan Elkoubi moved quickly as soon as the coronavirus-driven pandemic leveled the industry in America’s most popular destination. He didn’t retreat. Instead, he put together and launched a website, https://htta.us/ (for Hospitality-Tourism-Travel-and-Activities Recovery Registry), a “continuously evolving platform dedicated to the long-term recovery of unemployed and furloughed peers.” Within two days after its launch last month, there were several hundred registrations, along with support from several trade associations.
Impressed at the support that HTTA has attracted, we decided to talk with Elkoubi about what brought him to the USA and asked a series of questions about what HTTA is doing.
What brought him to the United States? He explains it thus: “Following a 1-year work assignment on the island of Cyprus, I arrived in New York City in July 2004 for what should have been a 2 months’ vacation. It turned into nearly 16 years and counting. My first job in the U.S: general manager of a small business which specialized in First Response Equipment consultation and sales. It is ironic that I was then an expert in business continuity best practices, one of the largest regional distributors of PPE at the time.
Early 2008, I was having lunch with my friend Mehmet Selcuker, who owns a receptive tour operator company (Bonjour USA Tours).”
“We started brainstorming ideas regarding how to elegantly approach his Fuel Surcharge conundrum as oil was reaching $100+ a barrel, impacting charter bus rates unexpectedly. He liked my approach and offered a position in his company which I eventually accepted. You can say I started my official journey in the world of tourism with a baptism by fire: the 2008/2009 economic downturn. Despite this challenge and the ones that would follow every few years, I fell in love with this industry, its people, and the values of tourism. Tourism provides access to an open dynamic world of positivity, personal improvement and it satiates the infinite curiosity of mankind. Since then, I have held a few different positions in the industry, and had just started a new venture (VisitorTix), with my client and friend Bruce Amick, when this new crisis exploded.”
The conversation continued …
INBOUND: About a month ago you announced the launch of HTTA.US. Can you give me a brief overview of what HTTA is?
Elkoubi: HTTA stands for U.S. “Hospitality, Tourism, Travel and Activities” Recovery Registry. This non-profit initiative is about simplifying the connections which could help the unemployed and furloughed of our industry get back on their feet faster: connecting them to representative Trade Association and DMO leadership, to relevant educational/information resources, to mentors and volunteering opportunities, to temporary gigs and finally, connecting them to upcoming job opportunities within our sector.
INBOUND: So, if I lost my job—was laid off or furloughed—why do you recommend I register at htta.us?
Elkoubi: The latest numbers from the U.S. Travel Association are staggering: over 50 percent of the workforce that constituted Travel is now unemployed. HTTA is here to source the most important information and facilitate the most relevant connections those wanting to remain a part of this industry are going to need. It is also taking into consideration another reality: impacted individuals are simply not going to wait on the sidelines and will use their transferable skills to migrate to other industries, wherever jobs are available. HTTA is here for the long run, helping to make sure that the talent pool remains available once recovery is underway and our industry is capable again of absorbing this amazing workforce.
INBOUND: To make sure I understand it right, HTTA will help me stay connected with the travel and tourism industry and help find a job?
Elkoubi: Correct. One step at the time, we are turning HTTA into a one-stop-shop: relevant information depository, connection facilitator with the industry’s institutions, and a pathway to future gigs and job listings specifically for our sector of activity. Currently, the first piece of this puzzle—connecting people to trade associations and DMOs—is live and working, and we are working at completing the other pieces of the puzzle as fast as we can.
INBOUND: What have you learned in the month since you launched?
Elkoubi: Many interesting takeaways from our first month: the industry is even more fragmented than expected, making our mission more difficult to fulfill. Because we are positioning ourselves with the long term in mind, some people are also disappointed that we cannot help them drastically right away.
INBOUND: We saw it on the HTTA website that several organizations have endorsed the initiative. Why did they decide to endorse HTTA?
Elkoubi: The life of associations and DMOs depends completely on the perennial support of past, present, and future members. By offering a tool allowing organizations to provide guidance and leadership to those individuals who specifically listed them when registering, they can prove their worth for their members of tomorrow. There is also a backend component to HTTA: the value of the aggregate anonymized data, which we intend to share, can help entities shape their long-term response to the cycle of crises. We also happen to be an “open” platform, very willing to incorporate suggestions, recommendations, and resources we receive from endorsing entities.
INBOUND: What kind of support are you looking for now?
Elkoubi: The most urgent type of support: propagation – as time goes by and more businesses lose their survival battle, it will become increasingly difficult to reach and register impacted unemployed individuals. We certainly could also use some volunteers and sponsorship money, although we decided to put these on the backburner for now.
INBOUND: HTTA is a joint initiative put to life by competitors. Why?
Elkoubi: Until receiving our first endorsements, HTTA had to prove it was a credible and neutral initiative, with no hidden agenda. And what better way to show a heightened degree of checks and balances than splitting the responsibilities and management of this initiative between two competing businesses (VisitorTix.com and Places.Events)? In all fairness, Marina Petrova, the managing founder of Places.Events, is an amazingly talented marketer and project manager; HTTA would not have seen the light of day without her equal commitment to HTTAs mission. Maybe the story of HTTA’s creation can inspire other companies, associations and DMOs to join forces in a similar way in order to speed up recovery efforts and circumvent fragmentation.
INBOUND: Everyone is talking about this, but I need to ask you. What is your forecast for the tourism industry?
Elkoubi: If things are left in their current state, catastrophic at best, cataclysmic at worst. But it is my profound belief that we can gain back control of our industry’s destiny and beat all projections and predictions if only we are willing to collectively innovate, cooperate and collaborate.
INBOUND: Thank you, your HTTA idea is amazing. Last question—what is your recommendation to the industry peers?
Elkoubi: Do not give in to despair, do not accept that there are no remedies and be ready to remain committed, contribute and witness the resurgence of Travel.