Suzanne Neufang gets GBTA leadership nod

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Suzanne Neufang gets GBTA leadership nod

The Global Business Travel Association has appointed HRS Global Hotel Solutions senior vice president Suzanne Neufang executive director, the organiza

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The Global Business Travel Association has appointed HRS Global Hotel Solutions senior vice president Suzanne Neufang executive director, the organization announced Thursday.

GBTA has been without a permanent leader since the board of directors in June 2020 placed former CEO Scott Solombrino on administrative leave pending an investigation into workplace misconduct. While the investigation cleared the embroiled CEO, Solombrino and GBTA mutually agreed to part ways this summer. Former United Airlines senior vice president of global sales Dave Hilfman came out of retirement to fill an interim executive director role. At the same time, GBTA hired association consultancy MCI-USA to assess the effectiveness of the organization and to take the lead in conducting an executive search, supported by an internal GBTA committee helmed by Hilfman.

According to a GBTA release, Neufang beat out more than 130 candidates for the position. 

Speaking to BTN this fall, Hilfman said the organization was looking for an individual either inside or outside the industry but would preference a candidate with association experience, calling the GBTA organization “complex” and requiring a deft hand to manage the often-divergent interests of buyer and supplier members along with a distributed local chapter structure and numerous volunteer committees. 

Neufang’s resume fits that bill. Aside from sales and management success in major supply-side roles, she also served in a volunteer role from 2012 to 2014 as board president of the former Association of Corporate Travel Executives alongside then-executive director Greeley Koch. She stayed on as an ACTE board member until 2018 and briefly served as ACTE interim executive director in 2012. As such, she brings insider knowledge of that organization as GBTA works to leverage the ACTE assets it acquired last fall, after the smaller association folded in April.

Neufang’s appointment could prove a major piece in reassembling ACTE’s value proposition. Koch, now a consultant with DigiTravel Consulting, since November has co-chaired a committee with GBTA president Christle Johnson designed to merge the best of the two organizations. GBTA also recruited two key ACTE advisory members, American Airlines chief customer officer Alison Taylor and Tesla global travel buyer Steve Sitto, to the board. An individual close to the discussion told BTN that GBTA would focus the ACTE assets on building the organization’s education offerings, which were broadly considered superior to what GBTA historically provided. 

The MCI assessment, as well, identified industry education and training as critical to GBTA’s future. In a letter to membership last fall, Hilfman highlighted buyer training and development as “areas of opportunity for new and increased revenue for GBTA” and noted that “the current market challenges lend themselves to a focus on this area to deliver current member value, drive retention, and attract new members.”

The industry also will watch how well Neufang is able to represent all association constituencies as managed travel struggles to recover in the era of Covid-19. 

“It’s not a secret that business travel is at an historic low point as a result of the Covid -19 pandemic, but in crises we find opportunities to be bold and to excel,” said Neufang in a press statement. “Business travel has been down before and we have recovered — always coming back more technologically savvy, data-focused, and globally connected. The key questions for me are when we as an industry will recover, and how we as GBTA can drive economic and industry recovery to be even faster.”

But Neufang will face not only external challenges of serving the membership and providing vision to guide the industry out of the Covid-19 decimation. She also will face what has been significant structural strife within the organization, including concerns about diversity among the association’s volunteer leadership, transparency at the board level and workplace friction with key staff, all of which has affected confidence in, sponsorship of and volunteerism for the GBTA organization. 

At the height of GBTA’s controversial summer, major buyers from pharmaceutical, health care and financial industries told BTN they had canceled their memberships with the association. Onecalled the organization “obtuse.” Major industry suppliers had pulled sponsorship dollars and were publicly criticizing the organization. GBTA committee members suspended activities and threatened to resign en masse.

SAP Concur was one of the first to withdraw its support from the organization in June. Chief product strategy officer Mike Koetting wrote on LinkedIn in June:

“Do you believe that [Solombrino’s] words and actions, … and those of the GBTA Board, demonstrate our industry’s best behavior and leadership? I do not, and neither do my co-workers at SAP Concur. The business travel industry attracts the very best and brightest from all over the world, and yet the leadership of its namesake association is insular and opaque. … We deserve better.”

Koetting exhorted the industry not to “quietly accept the erosion of our standards and values.” 

Neufang responded at that time to the post: “Well said, Mike.” She will step into the gap officially on Feb. 24. 

While Hilfman told BTN last fall that many of the association’s fractured relationships had been mended, GBTA will rely on Neufang’s leadership to deliver on that renewed trust. 

Neufang called the GBTA role a “pinnacle career opportunity” and described it as a way to give back to the industry she loves. 

Before her stint with HRS, Neufang held executive positions with travel suppliers including Sabre, GetThere and Travelocity.

Source: Business Travel News

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