“We will all be much smaller companies when we come through this. We won’t have the capacity or the confidence we’ve had in the past.”
It’s a stark assessment from veteran operator and Sunvil chair Noel Josephides, but feels like a sage prediction, borne out of half a century of adapting to crises.
From 1974 and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, when at that time one-destination Sunvil had to evacuate 500 customers, to the crisis the company finds itself in – along with the rest of the industry – today, the operator is certainly no stranger to the unprecedented.
The Aito director and former Abta chair has faced down and bounced back from countless bumps in the road. Covid-19, however, has already broken the mould and is not going away any time soon.
“It took us many years to recover [from the invasion], but we knew that [interruption] would finish at some point and things would get sorted out, but Covid is going to be a very long-haul problem and it won’t be over quickly,” he said during a TTG Face To Face interview.
After strict national lockdowns, Europe’s holiday hotspots are starting to reboot their tourism industries and Josephides is understandably itching for Sunvil to get going too as the company looks to plot a course through the new landscape facing operators – aiming for a mid-July resumption. It’s a tentative step, but one in the right direction. Josephides says most customers have moved their bookings to 2021, “with around 20% opting for a refund”.
Although just how many will travel this year “when push comes to shove” remains the most important, as-yet-unanswered question. Operating at 30% capacity would be “realistic”, he predicts.
“We need to start this summer so we can begin to understand how we’re going to trade in the future. Covid isn’t going to change overnight and the longer the delay the more companies will fail, and we won’t be able to adjust to the new order. I just hope this government has the common sense to allow us to do that.”
Josephides’ frustration with Downing Street’s strategy, or lack of one, for the travel industry is palpable.
After a carousel of cabinet ministers warning consumers not to take international holidays this summer in TV and radio interviews, the latest roadblock is a 14-day quarantine on UK arrivals beginning this week.
“I don’t know if anyone in travel was consulted about the quarantine – it does seem to be too little too late,” says Josephides, adding imposing such a measure will present tricky conversations for operators fighting to retain business.
“What do you say to the clients if they are being forced to quarantine for two weeks? Do you say ‘sorry, this has got nothing to do with us, we’ve fulfilled our booking conditions so you have to go’? We won’t be able to say that at all. We’ll have to be flexible and bend with the wind.”
A way to “save the summer”, according to many in the national press, is the use of “air bridges” between the UK and countries with low Covid infection rates.
Despite recent reports of air bridge talks with our European neighbours, speaking at the end of May, Josephides said it was the UK that was slow to get things off the ground.
“Portugal has had about 1,300 deaths, Greece has 180. Cyprus 17. These countries have controlled the problem far better than we have here... our clients will be far better off in Portugal, Greece and Cyprus than they are here,” he adds.
He reveals recent conversations with Greek tourism minister Harry Theoharis, whose country – after planning to initially ban UK arrivals – is keen to extend an olive branch and plan for the future, urging Josephides to “please put pressure on your government to talk to us”. But as Josephides laments: “The government here is saying ‘we’re not ready to talk’.”
He says not securing an air bridge agreement with Portugal, with discussions ongoing, would be “a great shame”, adding that trying to get a common-sense approach generally from government has “really been impossible”.
“I’d rate individual ministers very low,” Josephides shares. “They are very good at opening their mouths without much forethought and have very little charm. It’s an inexperienced government, you can see it very plainly.”
A major contention between government and the industry has been inaction over Refund Credit Notes – championed by Abta early on but not rubber-stamped by government, despite months of industry lobbying.
The association’s ex-chair believes critics within the sector should “not be so harsh” on Abta’s efforts, though.
“I think Abta, for all the criticism that it sometimes receives, is as close as you can get to understanding the problems which travel businesses face.”
Agents’ calls for a fixed time period on refunds is an area in which Josephides calls for pragmatism. “I’m sure Abta would be quite willing to talk to government and fix a date [by which refunds need to be issued], but if you have a government that seems to have no intention of co-operating with the industry, then [Abta] is left in a very difficult position,” he says.
If Westminster won’t come to travel’s aid, it seems inevitable more casualties will befall the sector.
“It’s quite clear government hopes by doing absolutely nothing the problem will just go away,” scoffs Josephides.
“I think at the moment it is ‘avoid the issue, keep quiet and let’s see what comes out of it’.”
With government support not forthcoming and wary customers, how does Josephides think operators can function in a pre-vaccine world?
“For us, it will be concentrating on a lot of complicated travel arrangements,” he explains. “Giving the clients a lot of flexibility, using the know-how we have in the countries in which we operate to offer that sort of service. We’re pretty bespoke already but we’ll be far more bespoke next year.”
With consolidation in aviation on the horizon and likely limits on hotel capacity, what does Josephides think might be the short-term impacts on the industry? One thing’s for sure, “it’s not going to be like the old days”, with Josephides predicting a wave of “initial cheap deals to get things moving” before prices rise.
“I’m sure that’s going to be the case and realistically the airlines will be reducing their capacity, and I think that’s a given,” he predicts.
Imbuing brand loyalty with customers and suppliers will also be key to survival in Josephides’ view.
“I think anyone who takes the different line will ultimately suffer as a result. We have to sort out our relationship with resorts, hotels and airlines, as we have to understand that the order has changed and we have to adapt.”