What if? That was the key question at Aito’s March 2020 AGM.
“No one could have predicted the worst-case scenario would become a reality so quickly,” says Aito head of commercial Bharat Gadhoke as he, chair Chris Rowles, executive director Martyn Sumners catch up with TTG over Zoom.
“Chaos ensued, principally with refunds. There was a mad dash to interpret the regulations. Thousands were stranded, flights were being cancelled and Covid cases were rising.”
That chaos quickly became the sole focus for everyone in travel; Rowles was appointed chair at that March AGM, but even as an industry veteran who – like so many in Aito – has weathered everything from volcanic ash clouds to 9/11, the impact of Covid has been without parallel.
“There was a sense something was going to happen, there was foreboding,” he says. “Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster for everyone. We’ve lost four members, more than we have in the past 30 years. Considering the challenges members have faced, it’s incredible how resilient they’ve been.”
Sumners continues: “The speed at which everything changed has contrasted with the time it has taken the powers that be to do anything. The whole world could see there had been a rapid escalation. But when it came to making decisions, there seemed to be a real lack of understanding and foresight.”
Plus ca change..? “I don’t think there’s been any change whatsoever in government,” says Rowles.
“There has been time to regroup. So to turn a blind eye to travel is mind-boggling. Is the industry misunderstood? Do they want to restrict tourism to the UK to help the [home] economy? Or are we just seen as being expendable?”
The trio agree government has missed opportunities to support travel, such as not tailoring furlough to allow workers to carry out non-profit generating work.
“If this had been done, I don’t think we’d be asking government for financial help,” says Gadhoke. “Maybe those businesses that closed may not have had to. Representations were made to the Treasury – I don’t know if they got the memo, frankly.”