Every travel industry veteran knows you are never far away from a major catastrophe. Sars, Mars, Covid, Dengue, Zika – take your pick. 9/11 in America, wars or innumerable other terrorist attacks anywhere in the world affect us here in Ireland and in the UK. Ash clouds and other natural disasters keep us on our toes and if that wasn’t enough, in Ireland, we invented the Celtic Tiger.
That roared for a few years before eventually devouring itself and the whole country along with it. As I was nearing retirement after it, I was content in the knowledge that I would never have to go though anything like that financial crash again. I was right. This is nothing like the financial crash. It is far worse.
Having spent the last decade paying for the stupidity of bankers, politicians and developers, we were finally getting moving again. 2019 was a good year and 2020 was shaping up to be the best year in well over a decade. All our “bucket list” trips were filling, our Russian and over-50’s programmes were “flying”, and it looked like we were heading for a damn good year. As I escort our “bucket list” trips personally, I was looking forward to a great year visiting all sorts of wild and woolly places.
My partner and I decided to go on a romantic getaway before all my 2020 travels, so we took off to a lovely hotel in Northern Ireland for a four-night break over St Patrick’s weekend in March. We left Dublin on Friday 13th (I should have known) and by Sunday we had declared our short-stay over and were on our way home again. I recognised the gathering clouds around Covid and I knew this was going to be serious. Little did I realise just how serious.
I met with the John Galligan Travel staff first thing the following morning and by that Friday we were closed and they were all to do their best from home. With the exception of a few weeks in June, we have effectively been closed since then. Today, we are in Level 5 lockdown – the most severe – so all non-essential businesses are closed. At the start, the government here moved very quickly to implement wage supports and my staff were covered from the time we closed. For the first month, we topped up the salaries to normal levels but with no income likely for the foreseeable future, we had to drop that after a month. Myself and my staff have had to survive on wage supports of €350 per week since then. In September that was dropped to €203 per week (the same level as the dole) and that was tough on everybody.
It has recently been increased again, temporarily, to €350 per week. All taxable and hard to live on, if you have Ireland’s legendary high rent, a mortgage to pay, school or creche fees to cover. But my staff have continued to work without complaint, as has everyone who is still in the Irish travel profession. Unfortunately, there have been wide-scale redundancies along with this, and of the 3,500 jobs in the Irish travel business, I reckon between 2,000 and 2,500 are gone. That has hit a lot of families and is going to create capacity issues for travel agents when the pent-up demand is unleashed.
Like most governments around the world, ours was very slow to recognise that SMEs had to be supported if they were to be around to re-employ anyone. Moreover, in slashing wage supports in September, they pre-empted a huge swathe of redundancies. Recently, they have brought in company supports for SMEs, but these only apply in Level 5 (which usually lasts only a few weeks) and take no account of the unique situation of travel agents, who have had to remain open but have no income, as we open our doors exclusively to give out money. When Level 5 goes, so do any company supports for travel agents.
August saw us protesting outside the Dail (Irish parliament) for better wage supports for our staff. A complete waste of time, as our high-paid ministers dithered, slashed the supports and then went on holidays. Our government is determined not to assist travel agents any better, but we continue to fight!
In June, we re-opened the office and called all staff in to issue every client with the newly introduced, state-guaranteed Refund Credit Notes (RCNs). This took about two weeks and bought us a bit of time to manage our cash flows, as we knew the next six months would be spent refunding clients. It also gave us time to drag refunds back from unwilling suppliers and have them ready for our clients. As you might expect, the one who still refuses to refund us is our very own Ryanair. As a consequence, we will not be booking them again.
Right now, we have received all refunds due, except Ryanair, and are refunding any client who wants their money back, within 24 hours. My staff continue to work remotely but I come into the office every day, to keep things ticking over. Our intention to re-open last June was short-lived, as when we issued all the RCNs, there was nothing else to do. So, we closed again and will remain in that state until Easter, at the earliest. All our “bucket list” trips to Jordan, Turkey, Galapagos, the Arctic, the Rockies and Alaska have been cancelled and I am hoping to do our first escorted trip to Turkey in September. I hope. We have sold a few cruises for 2022 but not enough to butter any parsnips.
It is not all gloom and doom, though. While things feel pretty miserable at the moment, the fact is that vaccines are already being distributed. During the pandemic, Irish household savings have ballooned to record levels, with over €72,000 for every adult in the country on deposit in Irish financial institutions. All this time, we have been hearing from our clients that they just can’t wait to get out there travelling again and are dreaming of the sun on their backs already. We know that when the green light flashes, there will be a stampede. More than we can handle.
Like everyone in travel in Ireland, we lost a lot of money in 2020, but we ended the year still in a very strong financial situation. “How can we lose so much and still feel like we had a good year?” I asked my fellow director at our AGM. But that’s the new reality, isn’t it? I was very pleased to have a very strong balance sheet, even after such an awful year. But we had to let some long-standing and sorely missed people go too. We have preserved all the infrastructure necessary for future growth. Our Iata licence, Our Clia and ITAA memberships, our front and back office systems, our government licence etc. However, we know that we won’t be able to cope with the demand when it explodes later in the year, and I have to plan how to handle that now.
As I am due to retire in the next few years, I will be looking to partner up with someone who can scale up the operation and eventually take it over. We have the space and the gizmos; we just need someone with a vision to bring it to the next level and to gear it up to handle the inevitable tsunami of demand that is only about six months away. We would be an ideal vehicle for a UK or American company who want a toe-hold in Ireland and/or the EU, and I have been keeping the company ready for just such an event.
Being one of the “elder lemons” of the Irish travel trade, I know how to get things done in Ireland and I have a few years left in me to assist any newcomers. I love the rapidly developing expedition side of the business and I would like to concentrate on setting those up, marketing and selling them and, of course, personally escorting them! I still love the business. I still have fire in my belly. I still have a few years left in me and a lifetime’s experience and contacts. I intend to enjoy what time is left to me and see a bit more of the world. I am really lucky to have visited all seven continents and stayed in some of the most exquisite hotels in the world. But there is so much more to see and so little time to see it in!