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.”
Sumners says there has been no consistency in determining eligibility for local authority support, while Gadhoke adds wryly: “Any hairs that haven’t fallen out, I’ve pulled out – 12 months on, and we’re fighting the same battles.
"Scotland’s government has said it will help travel with cash injections; in England, we’re still waiting with our begging bowls.”
He believes the struggle has, however, united travel. “For the first time, we have aviation, travel and tourism working together. But we still need government help.”
Rowles says chancellor Rishi Sunak’s pledge to support “viable businesses” was deeply damaging. “It’s not as if there has been a fundamental change [for travel] as there may have been for general retail,” he says.
Gadhoke agrees. “The effect, perhaps on the banks, is they now see travel businesses as unviable,” he says, adding that with travel on the cusp of restarting, some travel businesses may now feel they could service the debt from a government restart loan.
“Will the banks still lend them the money, though?”
This restart won’t be risk-free either, Gadhoke remarks. “We’re much further along with vaccines, mitigations and protocols,” he says. “Travel is probably going to be safer than it was last July – but travel has never been zero-risk.”
Speaking ahead of the Global Travel Taskforce’s report, published ahead of time on 9 April, Aito were hopeful its findings would recommend a restart based on testing and vaccine certification, leaving the government to get on with combating variants through genomic sequencing and test and trace.
Meanwhile, Aito has talked more in the past year about “being a family”, says Rowles, who characterises members as drained, weary and frustrated, but resilient. “They’re ready to go,” he says.
Sumners, meanwhile, likens the support offered by the association to a “lifeline”. “Those arms everyone has put around each other will be there for as long as people want them,” Gadhoke adds.
Aito turns 45 this month, and Sumners expects the association to be doing the same as it always has for the next 45 – adapting.
“Since last March, we’ve run well over 100 webinars attended by more than 4,000 people,” he says. “Like everyone else, Aito has had to do things differently. It’s had to reinvent itself. But it’s still a community that wants to help and support each other.”