More government support, a unified lobbying effort, and clearer consumer messages were among the key aims and demands of TTG’s #SaveTravel panel.
Sunvil managing director Chris Wright joined Cosmos and Avalon Waterways UK chief executive Giles Hawke and Advantage Travel Partnership leisure director Kelly Cookes for the debate on Monday (17 August), which set the tone for Save Travel Week (17-21 August).
“I do think we’re being let down badly by government,” said Hawke, who warned the end of the furlough scheme in November – a lifeline for the economy as a whole – would come at a time when travel is still struggling, and still suffering.
“Even during lockdown, we still had to operate because of all the cancellations, refunds, everything else," he said. "Companies are having to spend money on staff, but are not getting any money in while we make sure those cancellations are processed and customers get their money back.
“The government needs to look very quickly at extending furlough, or something similar, for travel businesses because it’s taking longer for us to get back to normal.”
Wright agreed: “Furlough was great, but it wasn’t fit for purpose when you look at the travel industry. If anything, we’ve been working harder and longer – it was impossible to hibernate and furlough and make good use of it.”
He said the situation had got worse as staff, burnt out by the pressures and workload brought on by the crisis, now had to cope with new bookings as well as cancellations, resulting in adverse comments about wait times.
“We almost need double the amount of staff we would normally have in this scenario," said Wright. "At the same time, you’re getting very little income and if anything, paying out more than you’re getting in while at the same time having set-up costs for destinations that could be turned off at any time.”
Cookes said the situation had gone on so long most agencies had used bounce back loans and other support. “It’s really now not so much about a preservation of the furlough scheme, but potentially job preservation.
“Consumer confidence is just so low that not only does it make booking new holidays a challenge, we’re also still on that roundabout of trying to rebook holidays; some agents and operators have now done that, I’m sure, two or three times with the same customer, and that is very, very resource-heavy.”
The panel agreed government saw the outbound industry as a net loss for the economy, but Hawke said this did not recognise the number of people employed or the public’s desire to take holidays.
“The value of travel agents and tour operators has never been greater in terms of supporting customers overseas," he said. "I don’t think government is putting two and two together to understand what we do for customers, what we do for UK PLC.”
Cookes said the current Conservative government would more likely listen to an argument about the damage to the economy and job losses if travel was not supported more: “I think it’s about coming up with a proposal that will be of interest to them.”
The panel agreed they needed to target MPs who had seemed sympathetic. Hawke said steps could then be taken to form an all-party parliamentary group.
The trio also agreed the confusion over quarantine and air bridges needed to be overcome. “We have to let people know that if you go, it’s no worse – and probably a better set up [with] better protocols than you’ll have in your local town.”
Cookes added: “They don’t understand why we’re allowed to send hundreds of thousands to pack out the beaches in Cornwall yet they can’t go to Ibiza where the beaches are empty.
“We just need to come up with messaging that makes consumers feel comfortable with what they can do, make them want to do it, and reignite that passion for travel within the general public.”