Aito is a family big enough to have a voice, but small enough for members to get to know each other. We operate a sharing culture and, in challenging times, you see a family sticking together.
We may not shout the loudest in public – although we punch well above our weight in the political arena thanks largely to our head of commercial Bharat Gadhoke and chair Noel Josephides – but there has certainly been plenty of behind-the-scenes work handled for members lately.
We are hounding all parts of government on the package travel regulations, on cancellations/refunds, airlines, insurance, chargebacks and on anything/everything that threatens our livelihoods. It is not easy when MPs don’t understand our industry; in the select committee interview with Abta chief Mark Tanzer and The Independent’s Simon Calder, it was evident the ministers didn’t know the difference between a travel agent and a tour operator – basic stuff.
At least MPs got the message the refund funnel starts with airlines and suppliers. The pipe is blocked and needs to be cleared to allow operators and agents to help their customers. Surely the airlines, finally, must be brought into the consumer protection fold? We’ve lobbied for this endlessly over the years – and it makes huge sense, particularly with some currently under considerable threat.
Now, more than ever, we need to know our customers’ views on holidays. Aito plans to run its 2020 consumer survey, handled by Spike, in four sections – the main survey in September/October and three more smaller surveys from now to the end of August, based on trigger points as yet undecided, to help members gauge current consumer thinking. As a result, I am confident more operators and agents will be keen to be involved in gathering this highly valuable data.
Meanwhile, while the current furlough scheme has saved jobs, it sadly has not worked for tour operators or travel agents. To deliver the high-quality service that our customers expect, we need to be working, communicating effectively, deferring bookings, which involves many man-hours, and reassuring our clientele during the crisis.
We hope the extended furlough scheme, running until October, with part-time shared-cost working possible from August, will help.
As Calder says, we need a thriving travel industry, and we need specialist tour operators. Our members are a valuable consumer resource and should not be allowed to fail, agent or operator. Specialists care about their customers and about their destinations, and their product knowledge and know-how benefit the consumer hugely.
I strongly believe there will be a new norm. We need to plan and upskill ourselves and our employees in a wide range of topics, from negotiating to financial planning and from marketing to product training. Mindset is key, too – reintegrating furloughed staff with those who have worked longer hours under extreme pressure will be tough and may breed resentment. Aito’s operators and partners have delivered more than 40 free webinars, and we have 20 more planned.
It is all about partnerships. No matter if you are an operator, an agent, a business partner or a tourist board, we are all part of the Aito family and the wider travel industry. We must work together and stick together, through thick and thin, meeting all challenges and coming out the other side, together.
Stay strong, stay positive and stay safe, everyone.
Martyn Sumners is executive director of Aito.