With travel agencies in England reopening from 15 June, how can agents prepare to keep staff and customers safe – and how might the retail experience change? Tom Parry reports.
Common-sense policies and clear communication with employees and clients will be vital as agents in England prepare to resume operations on the high street in a fortnight’s time.
Prime minister Boris Johnson last month announced non-essential retail outlets, including travel agencies, could reopen from 15 June, subject to new “Covid-secure” guidelines.
However, despite the firm start date, Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said told TTG’s latest Business Support Live – which focused on how agencies could reopen and operate during the coronavirus pandemic – there was “no prize for opening first”.
"The big thing we need to work through is customer confidence and ensuring they feel comfortable to walk into stores,” she said, revealing a number of agents on the consortium’s advisory group were looking to reopen in June.
Cathy Jackson-Spence, owner of Global Travel Group member Wetherby Travel in Yorkshire, (pictured above in her store), is among those getting ready to reopen her branch this month, and detailed how she had installed protective screens on desks and a foot-operated sanitising unit. She also described plans to use the agency’s back door as an exit for customers to avoid contact with those queuing outside.
Jackson-Spence had her screens fitted in early May, after asking a local company risk-assessing hairdressers to carry out an assessment of her shop. “It wasn’t expensive, which is great because we can’t be doing a massive shop refurbishment to get open again. We have to work with what we’ve got and do the best job we can,” she said.
Lo Bue-Said said safety-proofing stores would be a challenge, with Advantage members operating from locations of differing sizes. Michael Weedon, chair of high street and retail policy at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said the group – which represents around 25,000 firms – had raised such concerns with government.
“There are a third of a million small shops in the UK, and they are all different,” said Weedon, who explained the FSB was pushing government to fund “back to work vouchers” to pay for businesses’ safety equipment, suggesting £350 per outlet for “a screen, some signage, some PPE”.
“We think it’s a rational thing to do,” he said. “You’re probably looking at a cost to the government of something like £90 million which, in comparison to some of the other sums we’ve been looking at [during the crisis], is tiny but [would be] very valuable to help people to prepare themselves properly.”
Asked how agencies should action the government’s 31-page guidance note on reopening, Weedon advised them not to be “too prescriptive” and adapt the standards to suit their own circumstances.
“I think it’s all about common sense,” he said. “Your premises and staff are the obvious place to start. Signage is absolutely vital. Someone coming into a shop needs to know very clearly what to do and where not to go. There can be no ambiguity about this.
“For travel, look at issues like brochures. If customers do look at brochures, do you need to have some form of disinfectant regime there? There aren’t going to be simple answers to this – it’s a crisis we’ve never lived through before.”
Jackson-Spence said she would consult with her team when they returned to work on whether the agency would continue to offer brochures and teas and coffees to ensure they are all comfortable with how the business operates.
She added reopening her store was an important way of showing agencies were surviving the crisis and that travel “was still on the agenda”. She suggested those unable to open promptly should refresh their window displays and ensure they are enticing.
Discussing how the future of retail may change as a result of high street social distancing, Lo Bue-Said said a growing number of Advantage members were opting for appointment-based services both in-store and over video call, adding she expected these services to become more popular over time.
“That’s going to become the norm, and I think customers are becoming more comfortable with that,” she said. “Social distancing is going to be around for a long time. It’s not a flash in the pan and we can’t pretend the world is going to go back to how it was. We’re looking at what the tools are to help businesses operate virtually.”
Travel agencies’ multichannel approach – using social media, telephone engagement and now an increase in video – would help businesses adapt, she added.
“You might have been 50-50 high street to online before, but that is going to change, certainly in the short to medium term,” said Lo Bue-Said. “How can we best support members to be quick to manage a new kind of customer consultation? If you’re comfortable with speaking to customers face-to- face, then you’re going to love this; independent retailers are prime to take this technology forward.”
Weedon suggested agents turn areas of their shops into “TV studios” to boost video appointment capabilities.
“From my experience of the travel sector, you’re actually well ahead of most of the high street,” he said. “You’ve been multichannel for a long time, and you’ve communicated it well.”
He predicted Covid-19 would herald a “big nudge” in the way retailers operated for some time to come. “With no vaccine in place, elements of this crisis could go on for a long time, so our business strategy has to build in that resilience for a long time. That future is going to be fascinating,” he said.
For more business support, visit ttgmedia.com/coronavirus-support