There are still a lot of questions that need answering following the prime minister’s announcement, though we’re encouraged that the travel industry’s plight and the need to get people moving again was recognised.
The response our brands have experienced underlines that there is significant pent-up demand and consumers are desperate to book. Enquiries for overseas holidays, particularly to Greece, Turkey and Dubai, doubled overnight across our brands compared to the same day last week – although travellers do seem to be taking a fairly cautious approach and favouring departures from August onwards.
But now we have a potential timescale to work with, we need to set aside the febrile speculation of the last few weeks and really think about the questions that remain.
Assuming the various phases roll out in accordance with the government’s best hopes, and the vaccination programme continues its success, how exactly will travel reopen come mid-May? Will the Foreign Office advice change? Will travel corridors return? What about children and young adults, will they be allowed to travel even if unvaccinated?
And even with restrictions lifted in some way this summer, our industry remains in dire straits – how will the businesses that have survived stay afloat in the months ahead while cashflow will remain compromised?
Having encouraged them to make bookings, the public will not thank us if we have to then disappoint them once more if that timescale gets derailed. Although the end would appear to be in sight thanks to a successful vaccination programme, if there is anything we have learned in the last 12 months it is not to take anything for granted. How much sympathy would there be if, in our haste to ‘get back to how things were’ we spark a fourth wave and the re-imposition of restrictions?
Furthermore, on top of people’s holidays, let’s also not forget that this pandemic has already claimed the livelihoods of too many good people who once made up our great industry – and if it were to be prolonged unnecessarily, more jobs and businesses would be threatened.
So while uncertainty remains, we’d urge consumers to take the necessary precautions and not let their joy at the prospect of a holiday encourage them take unnecessary risks. Although we’re all hoping for good news when the reconstituted Global Travel Taskforce reports back on 12 April, even the prime minister admits now to a need for ‘humility in the face of nature’.
There will be a flood of very attractive offers in the coming days, but the threat remains substantial and consumers should book with travel brands like ours which have a proven record on refunding, and which offer the necessary commitments and insurance for future bookings.
After a very shaky initial response to the pandemic, I believe the industry had begun to recover the trust that had been lost during the great refund debacle of last summer.
Although there are still some bad apples out there forcing refund credit notes on customers or, worse, not refunding them at all, certainly for our own brands sentiment had improved, and we’d started to see that convert in to bookings as well.
And although numbers are very low still, the industry had flexed to function in a ‘new reality’ with new products and processes to reassure them that those bookings were safe.
Customers appreciated that, and were showing their support with their wallets – and it looks like they will be doing so in the days to come. But let’s not get carried away – there are a lot of unanswered questions and variables still to consider. The fact that travel even made it on to the prime minister’s roadmap is cause for guarded optimism.
But instead of claiming a triumph, our industry now needs to focus its considerable energies on answering those questions, and continuing to make reasoned and compassionate arguments for tailored business support packages on top of those already available to our sector in preparation for the long road ahead.
John Bevan is chief executive of dnata Travel Group, parent to Gold Medal and its sub-brands.