Oliver Bennet is the first person I know to succumb to COVID-19. On 11 March he cheerfully informed his Facebook followers that he was testing for the virus, then silence until on 26 March his brother posted that he had passed away that morning at St Georges Hospital London, with Farida his Indonesian wife of 35 years at his side.
Our colleague Les Clark echoes my shock: ‘It has changed my thinking. I’ve not really been worried until now.’ Les writes: ‘Oliver was a hugely respected professional in international tourism planning, highly regarded throughout the world.’ I reflect that it was Oliver who recruited me for some of my most interesting and far-flung tourism roles.
Always the consummate international consultant, Oliver could be relied on to assess the options, come up with an answer, his vast experience cutting to the heart of any thorny tourism matter. A Cambridge graduate with his home across from the Wimbledon tennis grounds, he single-handed ran the tourism department as Director of Deloitte in London at a time when tourism was considered the thin edge of the global accountant’s well-heeled wedge.
Using an extensive network of contacts he won tourism projects for the Emerging Markets Group all over the world, including several in Kathmandu, which is where I first met him in 1990. Clad in his habitual unruly Englishness in the garden of Hotel Shangri~la, Oliver was leading an early ADB tourism development program for the Nepal government.
Oliver’s most unusual appearance and demeanour belied his lightening sharp mind and razor wit with which he charmed the world. Bulbous lips, pointed eyebrows, eyes wide with perpetual surprise, steel hair sprouting in unlikely directions, and a heavy breathing nose which might have signalled fatal respiratory difficulties.
Aussies and Kiwis homeward bound from Nepal, Lisa Choegyal
Always dressed in dark suits or pinstripes with shirt, tie and lace-up leather shoes, I never saw him wear anything else even on our mountain, lake, beach and tropical island trips. Although I only ever witnessed Oliver’s corporate persona, he talked of biking, skiing and, unfathomably, disco dancing as his favourite pastimes.
A highly-regarded consultant of the old school, Oliver could navigate cumbersome tourism master-planning methodologies and field multi-disciplinary teams, even before the days of mobiles and laptops. His CV testifies to his big league status, working since 1982 throughout Europe, Middle East, Caribbean, Asia Pacific and Africa — in Namibia and Botswana he established innovative sustainable tourism policies that have stood the test of time.
Oliver’s gifts included getting the job done with expediency and always knowing how to give the client what they needed, or almost always. We got into a few scrapes during the several jobs we did together.
It was Oliver who saved me from one of my more uncomfortable consulting dilemmas – in Nairobi whilst preparing the marketing plan for the Kenya Tourism Board in the early 2000s – but then Oliver had dumped me into an impossible situation in the first place. The ebullient, large lady who ruled the tourism board had her own tame consultant in mind, but instead I was foisted upon her when Oliver won the EU contract.
Despite admiring her extravagant African outfits and enjoying collaboration with her Kenyan team, she was consistently and elaborately devious, going to great lengths to ensure my task was made impossible. And she almost succeeded, until Oliver arrived on a rescue mission as my knight in shining armour, and our Kenya marketing strategy was accepted by the Minister. It was some consolation when the tourism board lady was later arrested for corruption.
Hanging out with the headhunters, Lisa Choegyal
The South Pacific in 1997 was my favourite assignment with Oliver, although on that one I hardly saw him. As adviser to the EU-assisted Tourism Council of the South Pacific based in Fiji, he sent me off to design a tourism marketing plan that needed the agreement of 13 far-flung Pacific member countries, most of whom disliked each other, and whose scattered island nations together accounted for about one third of the world’s surface area.
Thanks to Oliver I found myself immersed in the unfamiliar exuberant embrace of Pacific culture and Polynesian dance, entranced by tattooed Tahitian serenades, Samoan transsexuals and Sunday church services in Tonga. I swam with villagers in Vanuatu, humpback whales in Vava’u, and sharks and stingrays in Bora Bora.
The security in Papua New Guinea kept me in the capital Port Moresby, and in Fiji I struggled to the office as a cyclone blew palm trees horizontal and destroyed lavish resorts on offshore islands. Oliver arrived in time for our plan to be formally approved by men in skirts, official national dress in Suva.