After Christmas brought fresh uncertainty to the market, how are agents feeling about sales for the year ahead – and beyond?
After a summer 2020 that didn’t really happen, agents should have had clients queuing out of the door in January.
Lockdown has put a stop to that – and indeed there are myriad other problems for the trade, with some agents still finding themselves excluded from government support schemes.
But around the country and across the Irish Sea, it was not all doom and gloom when TTG caught up with agents at the beginning of January.
Despite the travel ban, the resilience of some agents seems to be paying off and clients are responding to aspirational marketing – even if, in some cases, it is only with a promise they will book later, when Covid vaccines bring more certainty.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive, said bookings in the week before Christmas reflected current trends.
Then, only 11% of all Advantage sales were for departure in January to May, with 20% for June to August and 49% September to December. The remaining 20% was for January 2022 onwards.
Lo Bue-Said said there was “a really good mix” between short- and long-haul and predicted England’s lockdown would have little impact.
“People are not travelling in great numbers anyway. We were not expecting international travel to pick up in this quarter, but I think bookings will.
“Pre-Christmas, we were seeing new business bookings coming in for spring and summer. We’ve seen a lot of TV adverts.”
She said sales pre-Christmas had been mostly for Europe, particularly Greece and Turkey. “I’m optimistic, but I’m not sure we’ll see the sales any of us would like.”
Broadly speaking, the picture around the regions and in Ireland reflected this, although Deben Travel’s Lee Hunt was a little more downbeat.
“We have done a couple of bookings, but I’m concerned we’re not getting enquiries coming through,” he said. “We’ll get there.”
Hunt said his two agencies would normally be open late with customers “queuing out the door”. “It’s only me working now. We sent a lot of emails before Christmas with offers, but we’re not generating new enquiries.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s the lockdown because we have kind of written off winter anyway. We’ve had so many lovely emails saying ‘as soon as we have had the vaccine, we’ll be in touch’.” However, he added the length of time needed to vaccinate was a worry.
The Travel Network Group chief executive Gary Lewis was more optimistic about the vaccine. “It will give other countries confidence to open up to us. Let’s hope they [the government] can deliver two million a week by the end of January.”
Lewis admitted the return to lockdown had put a “dampener” on January’s recovery.
“We were hoping to get people away from March, but the reality is June onwards. However, we’re still hopeful the pent-up demand will start to come back in January and February.”
In Scotland, Thorne Travel’s Shona Thorne said her agency was now concentrating on the end of this year and 2022.
She said her team were focusing on “inspirational” marketing aiming at August onwards. However, Thorne said she had had no new bookings for travel before July in the last month.
“They are quite happy to book for 2022,” she said, adding: “We have still been proactive. This time we have not been hit nearly as badly, because we had moved a lot of bookings to April/May.”
Sandra Corkin, managing director of six-branch Northern Ireland agency Oasis Travel, said her shops remain closed with most staff furloughed.
“I can’t wait for the vaccine,” she said, adding the latest lockdown “has done nothing to help consumer confidence”.
“We are seeing some bookings, but it is too early to say because everybody is concentrating on the latest local news.
“We’re getting more enquiries for 2022 than 2021 and we’re working on some nice long-haul for 2022.”
She said 50% of enquiries were for 2022 cruises. “Other agents I have spoken to have been surprised by that,” she said, adding that postponed weddings and honeymoons were also among enquiries.
“People are happy to confirm for laterthis year or 2022, but not for March or April.”
Ireland’s agencies have been unable to reopen since March.
Maura Fahy of Fahy Travel in Galway said there had been some enquiries between Christmas and new year and some clients with February bookings had requested changes.
She said there had been difficulties with UK-Ireland flights over Christmas “with people still stuck here”, adding she had made bookings to Scotland and the Canaries “but as far as summer 2021 goes, nothing is happening”.
She added: “Cruising is probably the one people are taking a chance on for late 2021 or 2022.
“There is talk of pent-up demand, but I don’t believe it will happen before the vaccine. The UK is ahead of us, we’ve just started.”
Fahy said she was being “open and honest” with customers. “We will be here when the market reopens, but I think it’s going to beMarch.”
The agents agreed Brexit had not been a big issue for clients.