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CATO marks 25 years with big birthday bash in Sydney

In its 25 years, an anniversary marked on Thursday in Sydney, the Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO) has had to evolve a lot.

In its 25 years, an anniversary marked on Thursday in Sydney, the Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO) has had to evolve a lot.

What started as a bit of a (“unintended”) “boys club”, according to CATO co-founder and life member Peter Bailey, in 1999, has since gone on to become one of the major voices in the Australian travel industry.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing – or rather touring. Has anything in the travel industry? 

CATO dinner
Brett Jardine at the anniversary dinner (Image Mark Harada).

Speaking on a panel (or as CATO Managing Director Brett Jardine calls it “fireside chat”) at CATO’s 25th birthday bash at the Sydney Hilton Hotel, Bailey says in the early years the council had to go up against a government that wanted to impose the new GST on outbound travel (a fight it won – with “tremendous support” from Qantas Holidays), the September 11 terror attacks and the Bali bombings.

“Those are the types of things we had in our first three years or four years of inception and they helped to actually move the association from being an old boys club to slowly but surely what it is today,” he said of CATO’s journey.

That’s not to mention the collapse of the Ansett airline as well.


More recently, the industry was upended by the COVID pandemic, when CATO fought hard to highlight to the government the economic importance of outbound travel.

“With the credibility of Tourism Research Australia, we could prove that the outbound travel sector was worth $12 billion to the Australian economy,” Chair Dennis Bunnik said during the chat.

“What COVID proved is the value of industry associations. It’s a little bit like insurance. You don’t worry about insurance until you actually need it. And the thing is, we need to build on that for the good times.” 

Speaking on the future of the council, Bunnik said, “If we can grow the sector through the [CATO] Touring Academy, and make sure that CATO isn’t just for the good times… but it’s for sustained growth for all of us, I think that we’ll see a whole lot of people in this room in another 25 years celebrating the 50th anniversary.”

Before the birthday dinner, the council held its 2024 Annual General Meeting, attended by nearly 100 members.

During the AGM, Jardine flagged the year’s highlights, including the successful implementation of the Reviving International Tourism Grant (RITG) program, CATO’s Accreditation program and the launch of the CATO Touring Academy.

Bunnik also emphasised the potential of the academy to boost the touring sector through travel consultant training.

In addition, he shared data from the upcoming Australians on Holiday report, revealing that almost 10 million Australians travelled overseas in 2023, with over 480,000 multi-day tours taken – including 225,000 traditional coach tours.

Board members

CATO announced during the AGM the re-election of four board members for two-year terms:

  • Lisa Pagotto, Founder at Crooked Compass, has been re-elected as Vice Chair
  • Sean Martin, Managing Director at G Adventures
  • Brad McDonnell, Managing Director at Entire Travel Group
  • Aaron Zoanetti, Principal, Frontera Law

Ingrid Berthelsen was also elected to the board for the first time.

The newly elected members join Chair Dennis Bunnik and seasoned board members including:

  • James O’Donnell, Finance Director, The Travel Corporation Australia (TTC)
  • Julie King, Founder & CEO, Julie King & Associates and Founder of Bonailie
  • Martin Edwards, Co-Founder & Chief Exploration Officer, The Explorer Society
  • Yvette Thompson – General Manager – Sales & Marketing ANZ, Intrepid Travel Group

“The last 12 months have been one of CATO’s most successful years in history and I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Dennis Bunnik and our board for the support and commitment to realise and drive our strategic vision,” Jardine said.

Bunnik adds, “Tonight we celebrate 25 years since the inception of CATO and we do so at the most exciting time in the association’s history. The success of the CATO Accreditation rollout and the massive boost to members through RITG funding, are front runners to the incredible opportunity that now lies in front of us with the launch of the CATO Touring Academy.”