Agents fighting on the front line for the industry came together to voice their most pressing concerns last week amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Difficulty accessing government relief schemes and the refund debate were hot topics of discussion for the first live-streamed Agent Matters panel with TTG last week.
Oasis Travel managing director Sandra Corkin; Gemma Antrobus, managing director of Haslemere Travel; and Idle Travel director Tony Mann convened to discuss their experiences working through the coronavirus crisis with TTG Media group editor Pippa Jacks.
This session was the first in a series of weekly agent panels, which will air at 11am on Tuesdays going forward.
The three agents agreed the new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which sees the government refund businesses 80% of a furloughed worker’s wage up to £2,500 a month, is difficult for travel agents to exploit.
Furloughed employees cannot do any work for the business, which includes answering emails and phone calls, and many agencies need their staff to handle the wave of rebookings, refunds and cancellation requests.
“We need an exemption if we are still trying to fulfil business but want to save costs to keep the business going for the future,” said Mann. “We are hanging on by the skin of our teeth.
“It’s been stressful, absolutely. I have had some sleepless nights, and I am not afraid to admit there have been tears shed as well.”
The panel also discussed problems accessing the new Business Interruption Loan. This sees loans, overdrafts, invoice finance and asset finance of up to £5 million made available to SMEs.
The government will cover the first 12 months of interest payments and provide guarantees for 80% on each loan.
However, Mann said his bank is asking for personal guarantors and Corkin highlighted how loans might affect Atol and Abta bonds in the future. “It’s [meant to be] there not to drag us down, but help us through these times,” said Mann.
Antrobus added: “I have already heard stories of agents who have applied but been declined because they have too much money – banks are waiting for you to literally be on the brink before they will agree to this. Every bank is different but some banks are not being very helpful.”
Delays in changing the Package Travel Regulations (PTR) in UK law have also proved a sticking point.
PTRs, which stipulate operators must provide cash refunds in the event of cancellation, were relaxed by the European Commission (EC) on 19 March.
But the changes have still not been made into UK law and on TTG’s Business Support Live panel last week travel lawyer Farina Azam of Kemp Little warned the industry “it could take a long time”.
“The government has been slow in changes to PTRs,” said Mann. “Years ago we should have looked at this – way back with the [Iceland volcanic] ash cloud, things should have changed.”
The panel is encouraging customers to rebook with credit rather than cancel. “We try to have a good relationship with customers and sometimes it has been very strained to say the least,” added Mann.
Corkin said: “It seems different companies are applying different rules.
“You can have your holiday booked with one company and have a refund, and your friend has booked with someone else, and they are not getting a refund.
“It’s confusing for customers. But the majority, well over 50% of our customers, have moved their holidays to date.”
Corkin added she hoped clients would start thinking about their 2021 holidays during the lockdown.
Antrobus stressed the need for agents to communicate positive messages to their followers.
Haslemere Travel has been sending a weekly email full of content designed to be inspirational, such as recommendations of films set in beautiful locations or destination colouring patterns.
“When you have had to slash staff and probably marketing budgets and all sorts of things, this probably seems like the bottom of the [priority] pile, but we have to do it,” she said.
“We have to do it for the future. It’s not just about rearranging holidays. We have to plan for the comeback, because it will come back, and we have to be ready for it.”
Confusion over refund policy is putting a strain not only on client-agent relationships, but on agent-supplier partnerships, the panel agreed.
“The vast majority of tour operators we work with have been absolutely amazing and readily providing information and doing whatever they can, but there is the odd pocket of tour operators who for whatever reason are being less than helpful, and not relaying that right information,” said Antrobus.
“I know we all have to plan for the future, but right now there are answers which consumers and agent partners need that take priority as far as I am concerned.”
It could affect relationships in the long term, said Mann. “We will all decide going forward, after all this, which operators have dealt with it well, and who we want to deal with [in the future].”
However, there is an opportunity to change the industry for the better, stressed Antrobus.
“I think we are still in that stage of chasing our tails trying to rearrange people’s travel and communicate with clients, but in a couple of weeks’ time there will an opportunity for business owners and managers to sit down and reflect on how our businesses have been run thus far.”
She encouraged business owners to reflect on what could be done better and what strengthening measures could be put in place to help them bounce back more quickly once the crisis passes.
Tune in to Agent Matters with TTG at 11am on Tuesdays on the Travel Trade Gazette Facebook page.