Travel agents share their views on travel industry issues and experiences of selling travel in 2020
“The Government’s traffic light system feels like something of a smokescreen. It is still so limited and more confusing than ever. ”
Anneka Desrosiers at Southern Cross Travel describes how the confusing and limited restrictions on travel are affecting her business
The Government’s traffic light system feels like something of a smokescreen to make it look like they are opening up international travel when really it is still so limited and more confusing than ever.
Our existing clients are approaching us for advice, under the impression that we get more comprehensive information than they have access to – but as we all know, we’re just as much in the dark.
We have a client due to go to Crete in June, her second attempt at a holiday there. She now can’t travel due to being unable to self-isolate on return yet isn’t due a refund as the airline is flying. Thankfully, she is still grateful for having an agent working hard on her behalf.
With other clients its a mixture – some are very grateful for what we’ve done and keen to book with us when they can, while others chase their due refunds daily.
I am determined that we remain as positive as we can - the thought of another tough year is somewhat galling.
Let’s hope more countries get added to the green list soon and we can all get back to doing the part of the job we love – which is making people’s holiday dreams come true!
“We can assume that if clients want to holiday abroad in the short term they must be willing to pay for testing”
Liz Beaty from The Travel Team, describes what it's like being back in office
While we still eagerly await updates and travel advice, we can assume that if clients want to holiday abroad in the short term they must be willing to pay for testing and accept they may have to quarantine and test again on the return.
The majority of clients that have changed from 2020 to 2021 are preparing to change their dates again to 2022. Most tour operators have flexible policies and it really helps that lots of holidays, flights and cruises are on sale for 2022.
We decided to open the office from April 12, but with reduced hours and a reduced team of staff. Flexible furlough is such a big help compared to what was available last year. We will also be encouraging customers to phone ahead to make an appointment and have introduced desk screens and hand sanitiser in the office.
We are lucky that so many people have been vaccinated in the UK but until the rest of the world catches up we may be cancelling and amending for a while yet.
To end on a positive note, Ive booked to go to Corfu in June and Jersey in August and will accept whatever the rules are for travel or amend the date if I have to. But I am so ready for a holiday!
“I think there's going to be a shift towards train travel and cruising as people will want to tick off a number of places in one go”
Homeworker Sandy Murray looks to future trends and reminds people to prioritise wellbeing
I think people are still waiting until nearer the so-called ‘allowed’ travel date of May 17 before booking holidays, and then hopefully there will be a flurry of booking. I personally can’t wait to get away!
I also think there’s going to be a shift towards train travel and cruising. There have been quite a few railway programmes on TV recently and I think this will influence people who want to tick off a number of places in one go. The same goes for river and ocean cruising.
I was reading about ways to boost employee wellbeing during lockdown by the Howden Group, one of ABTA’s partners who advise on wellbeing. They say to remind people of employee benefits and of the support available and to encourage colleagues to maintain a positive work/life balance.
Also, check in with team members regularly, especially with so many working from home. It can feel isolating and lonely out there!. Encourage your team to get active and organise a company challenge, a daily steps target or miles cycled, and have a leader board. ‘You’re never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.’
“We may well be ‘fit to travel’ by late spring but will we be able – or want to – visit our European or even further flung friends at last?”
Go Cruise agent James Hill questions the lack of clarity within the cruising sector
Is the road map a false dawn as far as small ship cruising is concerned? How do we respond to the constant questioning of “Will my booking for July be OK?” Or “Is it safe to book a September sailing?”
Us self-employed commission-only agents are all desperate for some cash-flow and thus want to reassure booked clients that all will be well, and to take new bookings to give 2021 some income flow, but there seems to be no certainty yet.
During the recent CLIA virtual river conference, the head honcho of a leading USA-based river cruise line assured us that they will be sailing in Europe in May. Yet just 24 hours later a different head honcho of another USA-based river cruise operator stated it will be at least August before sailings recommence.
It is clear that the UK’s vaccination programme is a massive success but Europe is falling way behind in getting any significant numbers vaccinated and many countries are still seeing rising Covid numbers. We may well be ‘fit to travel’ by late spring but will we be able – or want to – visit our European or even further flung friends at last?
“Our focus is on rebooking existing clients rather than making high-value bookings, and that’s ok!”
Anneka Desrosiers of Southern Cross Travel, tells fellow agents not to put too much pressure on making bookings.
Over the last few months or so I’ve seen various online posts of people making high-value bookings, and I’ve worried that we’re not busy enough compared to others. However, after having spoken to a lot of my colleagues in travel with similar businesses to us it seems we’re not alone in focusing on re-booking existing clients and trying to keep our heads above water!
We have found that many of our customers whose deposits were held over from 2020 are now making plans for later this year. I’m not sure I’d call it a boom as such, but I think the industry will definitely encounter one when there is more clarity about exactly when and where we can travel internationally and what will be required of us.
Most of our customers are over 50, so many have already had their first vaccine, which, hopefully, will make them feel more confident about holidaying.
Given the year we’ve all had in the industry, I think everyone deserves a pat on the back just for keeping on keeping on! Travel is such an amazing industry full of positive, hardworking and resilient people – here’s to an easier road ahead.
“I will be encouraging customers to get the vaccine to promote safer travel and also get them thinking about a post-vaccination holiday”
Sandy Murray a Homeworker, believes clients will book based on protection policies
At a time when people can’t travel, we must invest in ourselves and our agencies. The latest restrictions present a good excuse to ring your customers to see how they are and how they are coping.
I will be encouraging customers to get the vaccine to promote safer travel and also get them thinking about a post-vaccination holiday. It’s a great way to turn a negative into a positive and will be crucial in getting the travel industry up and running again.
Protection is priceless
For those that are still working from home, I would recommend signing up for the daily ABTA Destination Operational Bulletins which provide updates on the ever-changing travel guidelines.
I think consumers will be very wary about who they book with once they decide to travel again. I have seen articles advising readers against using online travel agents such as eDreams, Opodo and eSky who are not held to ABTA’s code of conduct and have been charging twice the price for flights.
This is good news for us reputable agents as people will do their research and book based on our protection policies.
“We won’t forget those that worked with us to assist clients. We also won’t forget those that ignored us as we worked tirelessly.”
Liz Beaty from The Travel Team tells us how important it is to have operators working together with agents during this time
"This year hasn’t started the way any of us expected or hoped for! Speaking to customers, friends and family I know everyone is hoping the vaccine will be the solution to travel safely again. We only have a handful of bookings for dates up to end of March and I’m unsure how many of these – if any – will actually go ahead.
I do still feel optimistic for later this year though and hope to be inundated with bookings as we move through 2021.
I’d like to thank the tour operators that answered their phones, replied to emails, kept on enough staff to deal with issues and refunded and updated us promptly.
We won’t forget those that worked with us to assist customers and we will book with them again. Those same tour operators have developed flexible T&Cs which give us the tools and information we need to encourage new bookings. I think as long as we are all realistic about what might happen, money is financially protected and travel arrangements can be amended, confidence to travel will return.
We also won’t forget those that seemed to ignore us as we worked tirelessly with too many false promises. No need to name names – we all have a list I’m sure!
“While there is light at the end of the tunnel, there still seems to be total uncertainty from small ship suppliers”
Go Cruise agent James Hill tells us what it's like to be a cruise specialist during the pandemic
"As a travel agent still active at 70, the imminent first jab does bring much optimism, however this is tempered by the realism of the timetable for the vast majority of people, not only in the UK but in Europe and worldwide.
Many agents are faced with the reality that travel will not resume in the immediate months ahead and are now having to rebook cancellations from spring 2020 to new dates in spring 2022.
Within my niche of small-ship cruising there seems to be total uncertainty from suppliers.
The same hour that I received further cancellations from a UK-based cruise operator offering no-fly UK sailings (surely the most Covid-proof of cruises), I received special offers on May sailings from a U.S.-based small-ship cruise line for trips around the Mediterranean.
It’s going to be a tough few months, but at least there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.
“ Since moving to Barbados I've been able to build relationships with suppliers on the island and offer clients specialist destination knowledge”
Travel Counsellor Yvonne Campbell tells us why she decided to relocate to Barbados as part of a new Welcome Stamp visa scheme and how being a Barbados specialist is boosting bookings.
“ We plant a tree for every booking made and are working to offset the cost of testing in country to help people travel with confidence”
With over 75% of leads coming from social media, nemo Founder Tom Harding explains how the agency is targeting a generation of online bookers and why meaningful travel is trending for 2021.
“I hope that a quicker, easier and cheaper Covid test is made available soon as this expense could delay people travelling”
Liz Beaty from The Travel Team tells us how her high street agency has adapted to trading in the midst of a pandemic
"There is such a lot of uncertainty in the world at the moment but one thing I’m confident in saying is that people are desperate to get away and enjoy a holiday.
"We saw this at the end of October when restrictions were lifted for the Canary Islands and we noted a surge in bookings.
"I hope that a quicker, easier and cheaper Covid test is made available soon as this expense could delay people travelling."
"I think the trend going forward will be to book last-minute to ensure minimum disruption. Unfortunately, I think long-haul travel and cruising will be most affected.
"We are looking to work with tour operators that can give flexible booking terms to enable clients to change dates or destinations if they need to due to Covid.
"Also, we will remember those operators which coped well in the crisis, were easy to contact and issued refunds efficiently.
"Flexible Furlough has really helped our business and we have opened a ‘pop up Christmas shop’. We’ve also had to hastily build a new website www.holidaysandholidays.co.uk to continue trading during the latest lockdown, and we’ve also given customers the choice to click and collect from the office ."
“I think more people will treat themselves to luxury experiences, in a five-star resort with a high standard of service”
Sandy Murray predicts what trends will form for travel in 2021 and reminds us all to stay positive
"Just when we thought we could encourage people to fly to the Canaries we get slapped with more restrictions.
"I believe that in order to survive we have to look forward, be positive and still encourage people to book, instead of fueling more frustration. We must be optimistic that these restraints will not last for months."
A positive mindset
"I read a study that flying presents a lower risk of COVID-19 than grocery shopping or dining out, with the use of face masks essential. I hope this is true as this will help to encourage customers to think positively about going on holiday and give them something to look forward to.
"I think holiday enquiries will be a bit different, villas will become popular as will places that don’t suffer from overtourism. I think more people will treat themselves to luxury experiences, in a five-star resort with a high standard of service.
"I am looking forward to going back to Crete next spring and staying at the five-star Esperides Crete Resort Hotel, Koutouloufari Hersonissos. Crete is a lovely big island with so many things to see and do.
"In the meantime, stay safe, never stop dreaming and never stop exploring!"
“Agents should seek out a consortia that protects client funds so that the monies are there to refund”
Go Cruise agent James Hill describes why he thinks agents will be more selective about who they book with
"As I write this during our second lockdown, I sense that we are nowhere near that blessed time that we will be able to call ‘Post-Covid’ and feel it is still rather premature to be predicting trends!
"Let’s deal in reality – bookings for any foreign holidays (or even just a domestic trip) are vanishing again as restrictions tighten. Our task now is to survive until such a time when people can travel freely and need agents to facilitate that demand.
Tried and trusted
"Many agents operate their businesses in such a way that there has been no entitlement to date for Government support. If agents can survive until travel recommences, the way in which we choose to book may have to change.
"Firstly, agents will look to work with operators that protect commission in the event of forced cancellation. Agents may seek out consortia that put client funds in protected trusts so that the monies are there to refund. And I know that I will certainly favour clients who appreciate what an agent does for them.
"I think we can expect these trends to continue until client reverts to booking on ‘price’ alone."
“We haven’t yet made any new bookings but we have been buoyed by 80% of clients moving trips to 2021”
Anneka Desrosiers of Southern Cross Travel tells us why she's still smiling after a rollercoaster year.
"So far, Covid aside, 2020 has been a life- changing year for us. In March, we lost my lovely Mum, Penny – proprietor of Southern Cross and my boss for over 10 years.
"Mum had quietly lived with a form of leukemia for over four years, but on her return from Australia in February she fell very ill and passed away on March 30. She was the linchpin of our family and SCT, and we miss her every day.
"Alongside Mum being ill, we were madly trying to get customers home from worldwide – all whilst I was heavily pregnant. A month to the day after Mum died, I gave birth to my beautiful baby boy, River, who is a shining light amidst the turmoil and keeps us smiling!
"Business-wise, despite closing our Rye office, Dad (Trevor), Liz and I are reopening our Wadhurst office so were preparing to contact our customers and talk all things travel for 2021 until the second lockdown happened! We haven’t yet made any new bookings as our time has been spent arranging refunds or rebookings, but we did have a few original bookings go ahead to Italy and Malta, which was reassuring. We were also buoyed by 80% of our clients moving holidays to 2021.
"Having a small baby in lockdown means travel has been limited but we enjoyed our belated Babymoon (with River!) in Cambridge and Southwold. There is so much of the UK I haven’t seen and look forward to exploring more of our beautiful Isle over the months to come."
“I don’t think the local people could have done more to make visitors feel safe. I felt safer in Greece than I do back home.”
Sandy Murry talks of her first hand experience flying to Greece and the safety protocols in place
"As long as I am allowed in and out of a country I will always continue to travel! I say this having just returned from 11 days in Crete, Greece, flying with Jet2holidays from Birmingham. Speaking from personal experience, I don’t see why anyone should have any concerns about flying, especially with Jet2 as passenger safety is their highest priority. I felt perfectly safe and everyone wore masks for the entirety of the flight.
"I stayed at the John Mary Apts in Gouves and Nikki & Michalis had plenty of socially distanced measures in place and masks in use throughout the resort. I noticed my favourite restaurants had also taken safety precautions with a number of hand sanitising stations, the use of masks and tables with plenty of room between them.
"I don’t think the local people could have done anything more to make people safe and at ease. I felt safer there than back home."
"I also needed medical assistance whilst there and was seen by a doctor just 12 minutes after the call had been made! A car was then sent for at 10am the next morning to take me to the medical centre in Gouves where I had an ECG, chest xray and blood tests. I was so impressed by the efficiency and level of care that I received by both the hotel staff and the medical staff. I didn’t let that little blip ruin my holiday though, turns out my pacemaker just doesn’t like being out in the hot sun!
"I hope everyone is hanging in there. I know it’s one of the worst periods the travel industry has ever had to overcome but we must keep travelling and stay positive."
“ We wanted to set up a highly personalised, premium travel agency for LGBT travellers that would give them confidence to go to places that they might not have thought of”
Hugh & Ben Eddon-Carruthers, husbands and co-founders of Huben Travel, talk about their new travel agency which is focused on providing premium, tailored holidays for LGBTQ+ travellers
“ I get so much inspiration from podcasts and producing my own is a great chance to do something creative, share great content and inspire people’s future travel plans - the perfect thing to do during a pandemic”
Travel Counsellor, Marie Rowe, talks about how her passion for travel and background in marketing have helped her market her business and how podcasts are taking it to the next level
“It's my business and if I don’t fight for it no one else will. And let's face it - there's not much else to do!”
Liz Beaty from The Travel Team would like to reiterate that the workload is not calming down, but she is learning to take breaks
Keeping in touch with other travel agents has really helped through this challenging time. It's good to talk with other people going through the same problems and give each other help and support. Although I've got great family and friends, they really do not understand how time consuming and frustrating our industry is right now and if I have said it once, I will say again – “NO the workload has NOT quietened down!
"Overall my customers have been patient and reasonable, but if their holiday is cancelled and they can't re-book, then yes, they want a refund and I completely understand that.
"Like most of us, I've had very little time off since I got back from South Africa on March 15 (it seems like a distant memory now, but wow, how lucky was I to get on holiday this year?).
My day starts with a strong coffee while I check all staff emails. Then I take a break around 7.45 and force myself go for a walk or do 'Body Balance'. Relaxing exercise is something I have always resisted – I much prefer a blast out on my bike or a high-energy circuit class - but I've found it really beneficial and it brings a bit of calm to my day. That was, until I developed RSI in my wrist – too much typing I guess – which makes downward facing dog difficult! They say we should all learn a new skill during the Coronavirus lockdown and it looks like mine will be typing with my left hand!
I've basically been working all day, every day. Saturdays have been a bit quieter and with three bank holidays during lockdown these have been my days off. I'm not complaining, it's my business and if I don’t fight for it, no one else will. And let's face it, there's not much else to do!
Take care everyone and I hope you can all find something to distract you from your every day challenges.
“ The Holiday Companions Club is a great way to get likeminded solo travellers together and talk about travel”
Kate Holroyd, Founder of Strawberry Holidays, talks about the four pillars she uses to build her presence on social media and why she started her Holiday Companions Club for solo travellers
“Most people still want to jet off somewhere exotic when they feel it’s safe to do so... the focus is towards the end of the year and 2021”
Laura Gelder talks to Kuoni Personal Travel Expert Adele Jones about what it’s like to work in Kuoni’s new 'virtual' call centre
"Just a few weeks ago I was in our Cardiff store, helping clients plan trips all over the world, but we’ve had to adapt quickly to cope with the coronavirus crisis and everything has changed about the way we work. For the time being all our stores are closed, so I’m working from home as part of Kuoni’s new virtual call centre.
"It’s been a big shift as we’re used to having colleagues and customers around us, but we’re staying in touch with each other through instant messenger and we have regular video conferences for both company and team updates - it’s a great way to see familiar faces. We have one main mailbox and an inbound number with a team filtering this, making it simpler for clients to reach the person who can assist them.
"I’m on a team contacting clients whose dream trips have been affected by coronavirus. I’m here to help them move their holiday to later dates and secure some of the best offers we’ve negotiated, ensuring clients still have something to look forward to. Feedback from them shows they are pleased we’re actively making contact and willing to find them the best outcome.
"Clients reactions have been mixed. Most people still want to jet off somewhere exotic when they feel it’s safe to do so. Naturally, people are more anxious about travelling, their job security and their savings, so the focus is really towards the end of this year and 2021, by which time we hope we’ll be on the other side of this awful situation.
"We’ve got holidays on sale all the way to the end of 2021 and we’re offering the same quality advice and inspiration we do in-store. For the most part, people are still thinking about their once-in-a-lifetime holidays, such as honeymoons, destination weddings and anniversary trips, and I made some big bookings over the Easter weekend to the Maldives - a couple going to the gorgeous Kandolhu, a small luxury island retreat in the Maldives which is exclusive to Kuoni.
"People still want to have things to look forward to – we all have wish-list destinations and being forced to stay indoors makes us dream of seeing them even more when the world re-opens. Having something to look forward to generates happiness and we all need a glimmer of happy at the moment!"
“Start generating some creative ideas about how to get people booking. Re-opening the shop is a great opportuity to remind the community that you're there.”
Sandy Murry offers some inspiration on how to drum up business post COVID-19
"I have to say our country never ceases to amaze me with it’s wonderful teamwork. The NHS and supermarkets etc. are all working and risking their lives to make sure we are looked after and fed, which is why it's so important that we all do our bit and stick to the strict regulations.
"I think people are certainly thinking about the holiday they have lost and want to make sure they have something to look forward to. I'm continuing to encourage people not to cancel and instead rebook which is, I think, what most people are doing."
"It's the perfect time to start generating some creative ideas about how to get people booking once all this is over. Re-opening the shop is a great opportuity to remind the community that you're there. What about organising with the shops around you a happy street party with offers to be had? You could encourage people to come into the shop by having a ‘lucky dip bag’ with special discounts/bottles of wine/parking offers etc., anything to get them in!
"I hope everyone is making the most of their furloughing time, how lucky have we been with the weather?
"I can’t wait until I can catch up with the people I know in Crete which is one of my favourite places. I have everything crossed that I will still be able to have the Yorkshire Travel Ball which is July 16, the animal charities depend on us!"
“The very public 'washing of dirty linen' over the refund issue does not give the public confidence to start re-booking travel”
Cruise specialist James Hill predicts how agents will bounce back and perhaps even benefit from the pandemic
"Many cruise agents are still struggling with the next wave of cancellations – both ocean and river. It's becomming a full time task dealing with the myriad of changing cancellation terms, future cruise credits, RCNs and refund requests (or should I say demands) from increasingly strident clients. Income for April and May has in many cases been negative and yet hours worked are longer and frustrations mount as waiting times to speak to suppliers with most staff in furlough have increased.
"Can we now start to plan for a bounce back or have a strategy in place when there remains so much uncertainty about every aspect of, and every cog in the chain than makes travel function ? Frankly, the current strategy, if self-employed commission only, is to rescue as many bookings as possible for 2020 and survive long enough to see a return to some normality in 2021."
Building back trust
"The very public washing of dirty linen within the travel industry over the refund issue does not help give the public confidence to start re-booking travel; it may well be that 2020 will be, at best, a year when the UK public stays close to home for the whole year.
"Once confidence is restored that travel and travel companies are safe, I am sure that agents will actually benefit as people realise that booking online to save a few pennies can have some serious downsides. Look after clients now, deal with the many questions raised in an honest way – and we can bounce back in time.
"My future travel hopes will start with cycling down to have a pint at The Three Kings in Hanley Castle."
“The most important thing is to stay positive, there's simply no point in stressing about something that is beyond your control”
Sandy Murray from Sandy's Travel Escapes commends helpful tour operators and sends positive vibes to the industry
"I can’t wait for they day that this is all over and we can go back to doing what we love, but for the rest of 2020, at least, it looks like a staycation is on the cards for everyone.
For agents that have travel booked it is worrying and I would certainly try and persuade customers to re-book at a later date rather than cancel, this also gives them something to look forward to.
A helping hand
Most tour operators are being very helpful. I have been very impressed with Jet2, which is responding well and extremely active on Facebook, providing updates, tips and advice on new admin procedures. ABTA has made some changes to help travel agencies too – changes which could help to save travel businesses across the country. Agents will remember those that were helpful and those that were not once this is over.
Now that we are all at home we can get on with all those jobs that we were too busy to do. The most important thing is to stay positive, there's simply no point in stressing about something that is beyond your control and remember: 'yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win.’
On a more cheerful note, thank you Darren Phillips for a great Geordie Ball back in March. The ‘C word' was hardly used as people were too busy having their photo taken with Peter Andre!
I'm hoping that my Yorkshire Travel Ball will still be held on July 16. If it is, we will certainly be ready to celebrate the end of this. If you are interested, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Clients are expressing a genuine concern for our team and how we are coping alongside a determination to re-book”
Liz Beaty from high street agency the Travel Team explains how her loyal customers are keeping her optimistic for the future
"This March I spent 10 amazing days in South Africa, having travelled out just as things were starting to change from the impact of coronavirus.
On the day we landed home, Donald Trump banned UK travellers from entering the USA. Then, just when we thought the news couldn't get any worse, Boris advised the UK not to travel anywhere.
At first, what seemed a clear message was confused by ever-changing rules from cruise companies, airlines and tour operators. The rule book has not only been torn up it's been ripped to shreds!
Like everyone else we are encouraging people to re-book but that isn’t always an option. But the overall message from clients is their genuine concern about our team and how we are coping. And there is determination that they will re-book as soon as the world settles down.
I'm confident that people will still want their holidays. I've worked for 30 years to build my business up and I'm certain it will still have a future – especially with my great team and all our loyal customers behind us.
As I write this, we have a locked door policy in the office and we're set up to work from home. I've had a risk assessment with each staff member, discussed their personal circumstances and put a working plan together but things will certainly change.
South Africa now seems a distant memory but for now I feel lucky that I may be one of the few to have had a holiday in 2020."
“Clients want to extend final payment dates as long as possible because they are not confident in travel and want to keep cash in the bank”
Cruise specialist James Hill from Go Cruise talks to Jessica Pook about the current challenges travel agents are facing
"I came to travel late in life but I have had 15 wonderful years as a cruise agent – with a focus on small and river cruise ships. Having previously run care homes, frankly, selling travel was a pleasure with great perks! However the past three weeks have and continue to be very challenging and stressful, with COVID-19 affecting virtually every booking – even into 2021."
Fighting a loosing battle
"We agents seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Our clients want to extend final payment dates as long as possible because they are not confident in travel and want to keep cash in the bank. Meanwhile, if their holiday has been cancelled they read that by law they are entitled to a cash refund within 14 days. But in many cases they're only being offered a voucher, since operators are desperate to hang onto as much cash as they can in order to survive, and if they do offer refunds it's often with no commission protection for agents.
"It's a lose-lose situation and there are very few new enquiries which would help bring in some commission in the short term.
"I usually comment that being in travel is not as stressful as running care homes – travel's not a matter of life and death, after all. Tragically, that isn't the case at the moment. We all hope that there will be an end to the current crisis – but I may well be moving into a care home for some respite by then!"
“Our emergency hotline is the go-to number for these stranded clients and we endeavour to work beyond what is expected”
Travel agent Liz Dickinson from Southern Cross Travel tells Laura Gelder what it’s like to be an independent agency during this unprecedented time
"The global impact of COVID-19 on us is colossal. The enormity of the crisis is unlike anything we have ever experienced before and the implications are beyond comprehension for everyone, not just those of us in travel.
The pace that the situation has evolved at has meant a steep learning curve. As an agency, our priority is clients stuck in resort. It’s a scary and stressful time being thousands of miles from home, reading reports and headlines about borders closing and flights being cancelled. It is our job to try to be a calm voice and provide guidance as to the best course of action.
Our emergency hotline is the go-to number for these stranded clients and we endeavour to work beyond what is expected. The time and care we are taking with every client is unprecedented, just like the situation.
For existing bookings some clients are happy to postpone, but many are uneasy about travelling at all and wish to cancel due to the fear of travelling – even into 2021.
The world is now an uncertain place and the travel industry will fundamentally change post-COVID-19. The number of airlines and operators may diminish and I think it will have an adverse impact on customer confidence, especially when it comes to booking holidays far in advance and paying balances three months before departure.
I do foresee a boost to the UK holiday market, but only time will tell if we return to the same levels of international travel.
“I’m hoping that my content will help build my contact base and put me at the forefront of people's minds when the time is right.”
Having finished her training with Not Just Travel in February, the same month the coronavirus crisis took hold,Gill Matthews tells Jessica Pook how she's using this time to build her contact base
"I finished my training with Not Just Travel on February 28 and less than two weeks later the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and the travel industry came to a stand-still. To say the timing wasn't great would be an understatement – but that hasn't stopped me from being productive in my new role."
Armchair travel only
"I decided early that there’s no point putting holiday offers on social media as we just don’t know when things will get back to normal, so I'm putting my efforts into marketing my business by creating 'armchair travel' posts instead."
I've started by posting about places I know well and my most recent post included a virtual tour of Las Vegas featuring where to stay, where to eat and top attractions to see."
The response has been really positive. I’ve had people tell me I have inspired them to go to Las Vegas and to get in touch once the crisis is over. I’m hoping that my content will help build my contact base and put me at the forefront of people's minds when the time is right. I’m also thoroughly enjoying writing them and it takes me back to all the amazing experiences I’ve had – it's like a form of escapism to me."
I think that writing original content from my own experiences offers that personal touch and it also builds that expert image that will help me generate future bookings."
It's strange to think that a matter of weeks ago money was the main barrier for people booking Vegas, but now all the money in the world wouldn’t get you there!"
"Before becoming one myself, I didn't realise home-based travel agents existed. I've always loved travel and enjoy nothing more than planning holidays so I decided that this would be the perfect job for me. I chose Not Just Travel (NJT) because I knew they could give me the support and training I needed. "
I completed my training at the end of February and met some great friends through the course who are now an essential support network for me."
Every day the management team release a webinar for franchisees, to keep everyone up to date on what’s going on in the travel industry and to keep everyone connected. It’s all very accessible and I’m really impressed with how NJT have dealt with the COVID-19 situation, despite so much uncertainty."
We can access information through NTJ's Hub alongside destination marketing materials and training."
Even though I've not had much experience as a travel agent, I've learnt a lot from other established NJT franchises who are having a really tough time at the moment, dealing with lots of unhappy customers wanting to cancel or reschedule holidays. On the bright side, we're expecting another peak booking period once the lock-down ends – so at least I’ll be very prepared when the time comes to make lots of bookings."
"While it hasn't started quite the way I thought it would, I'm still feeling positive that becoming a travel agent was the right decision and every day we get one day closer to being able to do what we love again. I’m so looking forward to making people’s dreams come true and booking those holidays that people have been waiting and saving for."
I think the main thing is to keep engaging with people and be seen to be accessible so that when we get over this we've made connections with potential customers."
People will be desperate to get away as soon as they can and are more likely than ever to book through a travel agent that they know they can trust, rather than the internet."
In the meantime, I'm going to continue to generate my armchair travel posts, getting inspiration from old holiday photos and transporting myself and others to my favourite beach in Corfu or a countryside retreat in the Cotswolds. But mostly I can't wait until the travel industry comes out of the other end of this, fighting fit, and I can get stuck into my dream job!"
“I’m upbeat about the future. I have a very loyal customer base and I don’t think this will put people off cruising”
Travel Counsellor Angela Oxley talks to Editor Laura Gelder about cruising during the COVID-19 crisis
“I’m aboard the Azamara Pursuit and we’re floating just off Miami next to seven other, sadly empty, cruise ships.
"Over the last few days we've passed through the Panama Canal – which was a bit of bonus really since we were due to disembark in Lima on March 23! Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the local authorities wouldn’t allow us to dock in Peru, even though the ship is completely virus-free. The captain also tried neighbouring Chile and was rejected by them too.
“The cruise started in Buenos Aires on March 2 and the last time we touched land was March 11 but the crew have been absolutely fantastic - always cheerful and reassuring us that they are doing their upmost to get us home. The Captain has also been communicating with us regularly.
“There are so many scare stories in the media about cruising at the moment but I can’t fault it at all and I hate to see it being criticised so much. I am liaising with Royal Caribbean’s head office and they’ve been very helpful. The ship is spotless and the staff work around the clock to keep it disinfected and keep us entertained.
Business goes on
“My colleague Anjie is covering my business while I’m away and is being marvellous, dealing with all my clients requests, keeping in touch with them and reassuring them. There’s been a mixture of cancellations and postponements so far. Elderly customers, in particular, are worried about future travel and more likely to cancel.
“Although I know I’m virus-free I am anxious that I could pick it up between disembarking and arriving home. But I’m keeping cheerful and I’m upbeat about the future. I have a very loyal customer base. Seventy per cent of my business is cruise but I don’t think this will put people off cruising in the long run.
“Sadly there will be some lovely travel businesses that will go under but I think once people know it’s safe to travel again there will be a boom in bookings and this could even work in travel agents’ favour since those who booked with us through this benefited from a 24/7 service.
“I can’t relax until I know all my family and customers are safe and I’m back at work but I’m being looked after by Azamara and hopefully I’ll be home soon.”
Since this interview Angela has landed in Heathrow and is awaiting a final flight to Manchester. Angela and the other British passengers cleared immigration on the ship, received a police escort to Miami Airport and boarded a plane chartered specifically for Azamara customers which was empty enough to allow social distancing.
“The travel industry won’t be the same but in some ways it will change for the better - people will realise that a good travel agent is worth their weight in gold”
Jessica Pook talks to agent Jenny Jackson Owner of Luxury Travel Guru, about the impact of coronavirus so far
“Our industry is once again taking a beating and COVID-19 will probably be the biggest hit we as agents ever have to face.
“Most of us found the situation escalating on Sunday when we were inundated with suspended airline routes, border closures and client cancellations. Then came the questions, queries and concerns but unfortunately we don’t have the answers.
“We found some comfort in our tour operator friends, some of which even opened on Sunday to provide answers, offer solutions regarding refunding and give us the flexibility we needed to rebook at a later date - or simply offering support for agents.
“Jet2, TUI and Jetset, to name a few, have been really helpful and are responding quickly considering the volume of customer queries. While we can’t guarantee that clients will get money back quickly, at least these operators are allowing us to give our clients piece of mind that they will get a refund.
“Personally, I’ve been encouraging clients to pay in full for their holidays, if they can, as this guarantees they get the full amount back, whereas those who cancel with just a deposit down lose that deposit. If they don’t want to go this year, I’m advising them to rebook for 2021. Many are considering this but I’m finding the prices have already gone up for next year, which is disappointing as it means we ultimately won’t retain that client.
“Protecting our clients is our biggest priority but while we’re cancelling bookings instead of selling, we’re all working for nothing and no one is compensating us for our time or money lost. It’s especially stressful when certain operators simply tell us to get customers to claim on travel insurance or offer vouchers instead of refunds.
“It’s important that agents have a support network and that’s why my Facebook group Travel Agents Rants and Raves has been a lifeline for its members. It means we can celebrate any bookings made and share if they’ve had a great experience with a tour operator or even if they’re having a bad day and just need reassurance.
“It’s important to keep morale up, whether it’s posting humorous memes or messages of encouragement. I’ve encouraged members to go for a walk for at least 20 minutes to get away from the stresses and strains of what is happening -because we just can’t comprehend what is happening.
“We know that the travel industry won’t be the same after this and we need to be prepared for that. People are losing jobs and are being forced to go on unpaid leave. Following the loss of Thomas Cook and Flybe, I’m not sure whether small specialist tour operators will be able to survive this and it’s so sad for our industry.
“However, in some ways it will change for the better in that people will realise that a good travel agent is worth their weight in gold. It will highlight how important it is to book with a certified agent to protect yourself against unforeseen circumstances.
“It’s vital to talk to our clients, face-to-face and if we can’t do that then over the phone – not over email and not over Facebook. This makes it far easier to offer advice and gauge people’s reactions. It also enables us to build up a relationship and understand how we can provide a great service.
“I’ve had clients for over 20 years and it’s heart-warming when they call just to check on how I’m doing.
“At the moment, getting our clients home is the main priority. I’m not posting offers but I am posting updates just to keep people interested in what we’re doing and keep that contact going.
“Once the initial damage control slows the following quieter weeks may be the perfect time to start looking at your marketing plans or do some online training. For those with high street shops, they could consider putting posters in the windows, inviting new and existing clients in and encouraging people to come in and just talk about travel options.
“Let’s use this quiet time to invest in our businesses, learn more and prepare to come out fighting once again.”