Agents are hoping to capitalise on an autumn “lates” market as consumer confidence in travelling overseas gradually rebounds, despite ongoing concerns about testing and the lack of consistency in government advice.
Several independent agents reported rises in bookings in August for late breaks to key summer destinations, most notably Greece and Spain, as well as the Caribbean.
They are hopeful this momentum will continue into this month and October, provided the government doesn’t undermine confidence again by suddenly tightening travel rules for key destinations, as happened with Portugal and France earlier this year.
Agents also again attacked the Covid-19 testing system, branding it a “major barrier” to booking, and called for testing requirements to be reduced – particularly for fully vaccinated travellers returning to the UK.
Holidaysplease director Richard Dixon told TTG that while enquiry levels had remained similar in August to previous months, the homeworking specialist’s conversion rate had “really picked up” with many clients booking just a week or two before travel.
“More people have been willing to commit, and that’s down to increased confidence,” he said. “We’ve seen an increase in business for the rest of the year – 38% of bookings in August were for the rest of 2021.
“There’s been good late business – mainly short-haul to Greece and Spain, and a bit of Caribbean. Dubai has also picked up after coming off the red list. There are still opportunities, even though the market is reduced.”
Polka Dot Travel director Mark Johnson admitted summer 2021 had been “hit and miss” despite “better levels” of bookings in August. “The final quarter of 2021 is looking relatively strong. It’s primarily to the Canaries – Tenerife, Lanzarote and Gran Canaria. I’d like to see some late business on top of that.
“The order book is phenomenal for next summer. But the next few months are going to be difficult for the industry – you start getting the balances in February and March so you have to get through until then.”
Off Broadway Travel said it also saw a “definite pick-up” in late bookings during August, particularly to Spain, Greece, Barbados, Antigua and Madeira.
Jeanne Lally, joint managing director of Travel Bureau Gosforth, said they were planning to restart marketing in September. “We don’t know if there will be a bumper September or winter; people are waiting to see,” she said.
“Emirates has come back to Newcastle earlier than planned and that has fuelled demand, as has Dubai going amber. We’re inching forward, not leaping.”
Responding to a snap TTG poll, agents highlighted the cost and practicalities of testing as the main issues hampering clients’ willingness to travel.
“Testing is still an issue, especially the one required to come back to the UK," said one respondent. "The lack of consistent advice is also affecting customer confidence. Many clients have resigned themselves to no foreign travel this year.”
Johnson agreed that current testing requirements were a “huge stumbling block” for customers. “If they loosened the testing regime, that would really help,” he said.
Dixon highlighted the “outrageous” cost of PCR tests in the UK as a barrier to travel and called for the government to “create more certainty” with its policies. “The major thing that unsettles the market is when destinations are moved from amber to red – that’s where we’ve seen the big drop-offs,” he added.
Several agents said they had “reasonable” bookings for the October half-term period, a market that could be boosted by the UK government’s decision to start vaccinating children aged 12-15 from early September.
Airlines, meanwhile, have been slowly rebuilding their schedules. OAG data shows 2.05 million seats in the UK for the week of 13 September, up by about 320,000 seats on the week of 16 August.
Uncertainty continues over some long- haul destinations, with the US showing no sign of lifting its ban on UK visitors, resulting in Aer Lingus postponing the launch of its new Manchester-US services for a second time, this time until December 2021.
There was more positive news, though, about the potential reopening of Australia by early 2022, with Qantas hoping to restart UK flights in December – providing Australia meets its target of achieving 80% vaccination against Covid-19 by then.
"So far, summer has been OK," says Gemma Antrobus, owner of Surrey-based independent Haslemere Travel and chair of Aito Agents. "We've had clients travel, and they've all been really successful trips. Everyone’s had a great time. And they’ve been grateful for the support we’ve given with the testing process.
"If people really want to go away, they’ll live with the red tape. Just the other day, a client told me: “If the holiday is half as good as the help you’ve given us, we’re going to have an amazing time.”
"The market is a lot more positive and there’s more client confidence out there. There’s still a little bit of movement of bookings over the next few months, but nothing like it has been. I’ve seen a lot of new enquiries, particularly for October half-term from people who haven’t got away this summer.
"Lots of people are looking at the Caribbean and some a bit closer to home, like the Canary Islands and Cyprus, which is really good. A lot of clients have been looking forward to 2022 and cruises all the way up to 2024, especially with some lines putting those schedules on sale already.
"For those who usually book off-season, that has stayed the same. I’ve found that where some families haven’t had holidays either last year or this year, they are already planning for August 2022. They’re booking the bucket-list trips like the US, big cruises, Disney, Indian Ocean, Maldives, Africa – the list goes on.
"They would normally book a lot later in the year, or the year of travel, but for some it’s a case of 'we just need something to look forward to'."
Rarely do we tip the transport secretary our hat, but Grant Shapps duly kept his word in August after promising a month of stable travel rules. It’s been deathly quiet so far as ministerial intervention on travel is concerned, with agents – and clients – tentatively seizing on this rare period of calm. As Mark Johnson notes above, it comes at a critical juncture, with the next few months likely to define the trade’s fortunes during the winter. Perhaps ministers could do agents another favour, in more ways than one, by popping down to their local independent to book themselves a late-summer or autumn getaway so agents can get on with the business of selling travel without all the meddling?