It has been the toughest of years for the travel industry, with bookings thwarted by ever-changing quarantine requirements. Demand is returning but lead-in times are extreme, as Premier Holidays’ Director of Sales and Marketing Claire Goffin explains: “bookings are polarised into very late and an awfully long way off!”

Adaptability

Flexibility has become all-important, with many operators offering generous date changes to keep clients travelling. Kuoni has updated its own Flex policy to Flex+, enabling some cancellations up to 10 days before departure. It has also introduced video appointments: “These have been hugely popular, particularly for honeymoons when people want more than a voice at the end of the phone,” says Product Director, Claire Ross.

Sunvil has made holiday durations more flexible and completed Greek passenger locator forms for clients. Touring specialist Exodus Travels has re-timed and re-routed itineraries to avoid crowded places.

Several operators have adapted by offering staycations. Premier pushed its existing UK breaks, with the Isle of Man and Jersey doing well this summer. 

Abercrombie & Kent curated its British Isles product into a dedicated collection, with self-guided themed itineraries like Taste of Ireland and upgrades involving super cars and driver-guides. The Inspiring Travel Company has taken social distancing to new heights, offering helicopter transfers to UK hotels. 

Kuoni has seen a ‘steady flow’ of bookings for staycations, added in partnership with McKinlay Kidd, and even rebooked a Maldives honeymoon as a Scotland road trip. 

The ever-changing Covid-19 restrictions have necessitated even domestic travel pivots, however. When the ‘rule of six’ was introduced, villa specialist Oliver’s Travels was among those discounting larger UK properties by up to 50%. 

What's been selling?

Overseas bookings have, unsurprisingly, fluctuated along with UK quarantine requirements. Exodus’s top seller, the Amalfi coast, held favour in late summer, along with Austria, Greece and Turkey. Greece, Cyprus, Sweden and Sicily sold for Sunvil while travel corridors held, with some clients booking just a week ahead. It also welcomed winter and early spring bookings to Cyprus and Scandinavia.

Venice without the crowds proved popular for Kuoni as the city break season kicked off. “There are people who will look at the Thursday quarantine list and call us on Friday and want to travel within days,” says Ross. The operator is directing winter sun seekers to the Caribbean while the region is largely UK quarantine-exempt. It reports a ‘steady stream’ of Antigua and Saint Lucia bookings with ‘strong demand’ for Christmas.

Premier Holidays is looking to the Indian Ocean. “Although there are possibilities of Asian destinations opening up, the focus for us is the Seychelles and we’re hopeful that we can secure some more business there,” says Goffin. The Seychelles got corridor status on October 1, though visitors require Covid tests in resort.

2021 and beyond

Asia and the Indian Ocean are already booking for 2021 for Premier Holidays, with Thailand and Bali doing particularly well thanks to added-value experiences.

“We have introduced lots of new and exciting products, which has certainly helped stimulate interest,” Goffin explains.“Getting 2021 on sale early was key for rebookings from this year as well as new business and we’re looking ahead to 2022 now as well.” 

Sunvil is seeing 2021 holidays to Greece, The Azores and more ‘confirmed on a daily basis’, and has even sold Latin America for 2022. Having a strong repeat clientele has helped. “There is an understanding that our most popular and praised properties are going to be busy in 2021,” adds Rachel Jelley, Sales and Marketing Manager.  

Canada, the U.S. and Asia are trending for Titan Travel for 2021 while Exodus is noting much ‘information gathering’ for Vietnam, South Africa and Costa Rica for late summer and Autumn 2021.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand and we expect these enquiries to become bookings once there’s greater confidence within the travel industry,” says its UK Agency Sales Manager, Dan Jackson. 

There’s also evidence of clients making up for 2020 travel disappointments with bigger forward bookings. “Saving and upgrading is very much a thing across the board – people splashing out on a trip-to-end-all-trips,” explains Kuoni’s Ross. The operator’s average spend per honeymoon has risen from £7,709 in 2019 to £8,247 in 2021, based on advance bookings so far. Adventurous itineraries to Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and Bora Bora have drawn interest and the operator has quoted for Australia and New Zealand over next Christmas and New Year. Escorted touring enquiries are also returning for 2022 departures. 

Who’s travelling and how?

Those retired or able to work remotely are the keenest current travellers as they’re less affected by quarantine restrictions. Meanwhile, social distancing concerns are driving demand for exclusivity. 

Exodus sister brand Headwater, a UK and Europe specialist, has seen ‘great growth’ in self-guided trips. “We expect this to continue as Covid has shaped our travel landscape and more people want to travel within their own bubbles,” says Jackson. 

Sunvil’s Jelley notes: “We’ve seen an increase in clients choosing smaller, community resorts, hiring cars from the airport, opting for increased flexibility and staying for longer. Villas in particular are performing strongly for 2021.” 

Sunvil clients who previously booked a week are extending to a fortnight and two weeks has become three. Kuoni has booked some very extended stays, like six months in Barbados, for remote workers, and Classic Collection has promoted large discounts on stays over 21 days, confirming 100 days in Madeira this winter for one lucky client.

There’s further good news on spending habits from Premier Holidays: “Luxury is getting more interest, clients wanting villas and island escapes all accessible by one flight. We’ve seen lots of interest in secluded resorts on lesser-known islands and beaches,” says Goffin. 

Reassuring customers

When it comes to reassuring nervous clients, Kuoni advises agents to highlight in-resort assistance and generous cancellation terms. Premier has received good engagement for social media posts demonstrating extra safety considerations. 

Sharing positive client experiences also helps. “We’ve had some excellent feedback from customers who have been on late summer departures. They’ve all said they appreciated the extra measures that have been put in place,” says Exodus’s Jackson. 

Sunvil has created a Coronavirus Hub on its website and shares experiences peer-to-peer through blogs, newsletters and social media. “Be honest and show empathy, keep abreast of the latest news,” Jelley advises agents. 

One thing’s for sure, even agents with keen clients are going to have to be quick to adapt for some time, so working closely with suppliers is key.