Since its establishment in 1999, the MTA has been the public entity entrusted with safeguarding, regulating and monitoring the travel and hospitality industry, helping to steer the sector towards growth. Now, with 25 years’ experience under his belt, Malta Tourism Authority CEO Carlo Micallef is determined to see the organisation – and tourism in Malta – continue to flourish.
Carlo first joined the entity in 1997, as a young executive keen to prove himself.
“At the time it was known as the National Tourism Organisation of Malta (NTOM), and, starting out, I was assigned the Russian desk, in charge of attracting tourists from there,” he recalls, saying that “no one had wanted the task” since the organisation did not yet have an established foothold in the territory. “Of course, it was hard work. We were tasked with making Malta known in Russia, without having much of a budget to begin with. However, we managed to attract the foremost Russian media outlets, inviting 10 journalists every week to the island, and, thanks to this groundwork, we gained wide exposure for Malta,” he explains.
Carlo’s dedication and single-minded tenacity brought him to the attention of his superiors, and, as testament to their faith in his work, Carlo was transferred to the British desk – “the UK was our biggest market with over 50 per cent of the market share, so I knew my work ethic was being noticed,” the CEO says. And it continued to be as the years progressed, and as the NTOM became the MTA, other promotions followed: Carlo was appointed as Head of Division and Senior Manager, and, later, he was chosen to serve as the Director of the MTA’s office in Amsterdam, overseeing the island’s tourism markets in Benelux and Scandinavia.
“I spent three formative years there and returned a changed man,” Carlo attests, explaining that the experience “opened my eyes to the world, allowing me to understand different ways of working, and diverse cultures. It was a big step in terms of my personal development.” This, however, also spurred his professional growth for, on his return to Malta, Carlo was given the task of developing new markets in eastern Europe, as well as in the Middle East and Asia. Carlo’s progress here was also substantial, and, in 2014, he was appointed Chief Marketing Officer, stepping in as Deputy CEO of MTA in 2019. Then, in June last year, he was given the role of CEO. “It was a long journey,” Carlo smiles, “but it helped me to prepare for the task we have to embark on today.”
Indeed, the challenge nowadays is vast, for the MTA oversees product development, licensing, compliance and regulatory matters, as well as route development, events and marketing within the context of an everevolving industry. “There have been many changes since the entity was born; when the MTA was first launched, the industry was tour operator-led. Malta was, essentially, featured in brochures, and you’d be guaranteed a set number of tourists from specific markets. As a result, Malta, as a tourist destination, would principally compete on price,” he explains.
Today, however, the way the tourism industry works is markedly different. “With the advent of low-cost airlines, digital marketing, and business-to-consumer (B2C) advertising, the role of the tour operator has lost a lot of clout, and there is increased competition from countries that were hardly on the tourist map in the past: destinations like Albania, Croatia, as well as Saudi Arabia and Dubai are increasingly popular.” However, despite this rivalry between competing destinations “more people can afford to travel, so that pool of consumers is getting bigger,” Carlo attests.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a crippling effect on the sector, worldwide, Carlo says, yet, there has been a surprising and strong rebound, proving that people’s appetite for travel is greater than ever. “During the coronavirus crisis, there was a lot of uncertainty – even within the MTA itself, since we couldn’t predict what was going to happen. However, you should never give up and you should always be ready to hit the ground running, ready to act when opportunities come your way. In fact, in 2022, as a result of all our marketing efforts over the course of the pandemic, when we kept Malta extraordinarily visible on social media, the island’s tourism sector experienced a very quick recovery, post-pandemic,” the CEO affirms.
This positive attitude towards dealing with unexpected challenges comes from Carlo’s deep-seated passion for creative problem solving. “This is the aspect of the job I enjoy the most. I love trying out new ideas; if you’re not innovative and you do not grab those opportunities, you fall behind. So, I believe the tourism industry in Malta, and the MTA, need to be on the ball when it comes to making decisions and trying out new solutions,” he says, adding that he tries to instil this attitude in his team. “My role is to get a team of very talented individuals driven to achieve their goals. I see myself as a catalyst to success, and a facilitator,” he asserts.
Looking ahead, this year the MTA will be focused on promoting target segments with “a higher spending power”, advertising the country towards niche markets that appreciate the diversity the country has to offer. “We are seeing increased interest from the LGBTQI segment, who are curious about Malta’s history and culture. Moreover, we are seeing a rise in tourists travelling for the gastronomic experience the islands can offer, particularly with Malta’s restaurants achieving high Michelin Guide ratings. There’s also a market for active sports travel – with visitors, for instance, coming to participate in a marathon, triathlon, cycling or trekking activities, or even coming to watch or play in international competitions, such as the Small Nations’ Games this summer,” Carlo says.
Difficulties will persist through the year, though, the CEO confirms, with the energy and cost-of-living crises prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine likely to impact the sector. “There continues a strong desire to travel, especially since many of us missed out on it over COVID-19. However, rising costs will have an impact on the amount of disposable income families and individuals have, so our challenge will be to promote Malta and Gozo in a way that shows we can provide the best of experiences for the best value for money. There are cheaper destinations which are attractive, of course, so we’ve got to push forward our message effectively,” he says.
One of the ways in which the entity is doing this is through the new unit overseeing brand partnerships. “We’re strengthening the Malta brand by associating it with big names, and teaming up with partners such as Manchester United and the Eolo-Kometa cycling team,” Carlo says, adding that this thrust is all aimed at helping prospective travellers choose the island as their next destination.
After all, seeing quality tourism coming to the country would, in Carlo’s view, increase the level of professional satisfaction felt by everyone in the travel and hospitality industry. “When you’re satisfied with what you do, you are energised for the future. So we’re hoping for peace and stability this year. We’re hoping people can just get on with their lives – life is beautiful, and we need to enjoy it as much as we can,” he smiles, concluding.
This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2023 – the sister brand to MaltaCEOs.mt and an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders
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