TTG held its first Industry Leaders Forum of 2019 last week, discussing the state of the market as we approach Brexit, thriving sectors and a boom in the high street. Jennifer Morris reports.
Business leaders from across the industry have reported holiday sales “squeezed in the middle” as we approach Brexit, with winter 2018-19 and 2020 holidays selling well, but summer 2019 lagging behind.
However, there was agreement that consumers are likely starting to feel a “Brexit fatigue”, and will at some stage feel the need to book. There was also a consensus that it will be “difficult to call” whether January has been a success overall until the end of the month, as the picture “changes from day to day”.
John Sullivan, head of commercial, The Advantage Travel Partnership, said: “For winter 2018-19 – the current season – lates is really strong, which is quite unusual because you’d expect summer 2019 to be the big ticket season for lates. We’re seeing really strong sales for 2020 now.
“You’ve got the bit in the middle a bit squeezed but either side of it is doing incredibly well.”
He added that performance remained quite sporadic. “Even for that bit in the middle – some weeks we [members] outperform the market, other weeks we’re in line,” he said.
Gary Lewis, chief executive of the Travel Network Group, agreed: “Summer’s slightly down on the good year last year. “Everyone’s doing analysis day-by-day and week-by-week, and I think there are huge wins and losses. “It’s relatively flat right now compared to last year.”
Angela Day, chief executive of Affordable Car Hire, also described a “mixed picture”.
“We have certain partners that are down quite dramatically, starting this year down 40%… they’re actually dealing with long-haul,” she said.
“People are booking further ahead, trying to take advantage of price freezes and budgeting.
“With the business itself we’re finding it’s quite hard to forecast because each day is different.”
It would appear that cruise is experiencing similar sales behaviour, with Gary Anslow, sales director, Cunard, stating: “We’re seeing surprisingly strong demand for 2020 sailings.”
He continued: “Some data I saw yesterday suggested people are pushing their purchase back, and that March is now the time in terms of propensity to purchase.”
Others in the group agreed cruise was selling well.
“Cruise is really strong for us,” said Sullivan. “Is it because a cruise customer isn’t as affected by Brexit, or doesn’t think they are?”
He added Advantage had also seen strong luxury sales. “It seems to be the bigger spend items that are doing well.”
Lisa McAuley, managing director of Gold Medal and Travel 2 said: “Cruise is having a phenomenal start… Some of that is consumer demand, some of it is just because operationally our infrastructure is better… but I’m certainly seeing a growth in cruise.”
As is perhaps to be expected, long-haul sales don’t currently seem to be as affected by Brexit uncertainty.
“Indian Ocean – particularly the Maldives – is very strong for us,” continued McAuley.
“Overall, I’m pleasantly surprised because I thought the market would be weaker than it’s turning out to be. But it’s still too early to tell whether it’s going to be a roaring success.
“We’re trading some incredible numbers compared to last year,” she added.
Guy Chambers, managing director of PR firm Black Diamond, which has predominantly long-haul clients, said these clients had reported a December “above expectations” and that January had “started well”.
“From a long-haul perspective it’s been very encouraging, and in some cases they’ve seen double-digit growth for bookings,” he said.
Peter Healey, group chief executive, Vertical Travel Group, described peaks so far as a “curate’s egg”.
“I saw some Google stats yesterday that said Google searches overall for travel are 5% down this month to date. We’re about 7% down on last year. This is the first time in our financial year where we’ve been behind on last year, so I’m putting that down to the Brexit effect and uncertainty.
“Long-haul is really strong… consumers are doing the lifetime events. Maybe they’re thinking, ‘It’s all going to change so maybe we should do these things while we can’.
“The premium stuff is flying out the door,” he added.
Many in the group described a creeping “Brexit fatigue” among consumers.
“They [consumers] can’t hang on for ever,” said Sullivan, with Lewis agreeing: “I think some pent-up demand will come.”
Stephen D’Alfonso, group head of public affairs and sustainability, Thomas Cook Group, said providing some clarity appeared to have emboldened consumers.
“We put up quite a detailed Q&A on our website including some of the Foreign Office travel advice amendments and government notifications,” he explained.
“In addition, before Christmas, we got a certain amount of clarity from the European Commission.
“With questions like ‘will I need a visa?’ or ‘will I be able to fly?’, we’re starting to be able to dismiss absolutely any scare stories touching these issues because we do have that level of clarity.”
D’Alfonso continued: “About 4-5% of people who visit our travel information pages are visiting these Q&As, so there’s quite an interest there.”
Cook has also put a “Brexit promise” in place, which provides reassurance regarding prices and flights, among other things.
Lewis questioned whether uncertainty surrounding Brexit could lead to an increase in consumers seeking the advice of a professional.
“If we fall out of Brexit [no-deal Brexit] it makes the [holiday buying] process a lot more complicated and drives you back to someone you trust who have a good relationship with,” he said, adding he was “not advocating Brexit”.
Healey said: “I’ve only got two retail shops, but they’re doing fantastically well and were doing well in November and December too.”
Sullivan added: “In general, huge consumer brands struggling or being wiped out is not to the detriment of an independent retailer.”
Travelport’s UK commercial director Guy Snelgar further added: “We did a survey of UK travellers… Over 30% that said they’d never used voice search, and a high number said they want to have a person in the loop somewhere.”
“I’m pleasantly surprised, because I thought the market would be weaker than it’s turning out to be”
Lisa McAuley, managing director, Gold Medal and Travel 2
There was a consensus that the onset of technology such as virtual reality would only encourage more holiday bookings due to its ability to inspire, and that while oil prices may fall in the next few years, consumer sentiment may be shifting away from flying altogether.
D’Alfonso said: “In Sweden and Denmark there is a campaign called Flygskam – “flying shame”.
“It’s not just a fringe movement, it’s something the media is talking about every single day. It’s questioning whether it’s morally responsible to fly at all.
“We’ve seen that term now filter into the Dutch vernacular as well as other Scandinavian countries.”