With time running out to secure sector specific support, Tom Parry hears personal stories from across the industry reinforcing why we must fight to #SaveTravel.
Whoever you ask, the answer is the same.
From the director of a tour operator specialising in Latin America unable to send customers abroad, to a 20-year-old travel agent in Newcastle who has recently lost his job.
The longer the government does nothing to help the travel sector, the worse the already dire situation will get.
Their circumstances may be different, but their language is the same – “worried”, “uncertain”, “desperate” – and pleas to Downing Street occur in every conversation.
Action has to come swiftly.
Having launched the #SaveTravel campaign on 28 July TTG has been hearing the stories and experiences of individuals throughout the industry who have backed, it and why government support is urgently needed.
NO LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
In January, Jon Haworth’s independent agency Best Destinations celebrated its best month of trading on record since opening in Accrington three years ago.
Covid has changed everything.
He estimates losing around £70,000 in refunds and unbanked commission since March, while last-minute summer breaks have all but dried up after the Foreign Office pulled the plug on Spain.
“For a young business like us that’s a massive amount of money, and there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
In June Haworth took out a coronavirus Bounce Back Loan to see his agency through to the new year, but admits frankly: “If things continue like they have been, I just don’t know where we’ll go from there.”
With limited sellable destinations, ever-changing FCO advice and tattered consumer confidence for summer getaways, agencies across the country have been forced into making redundancies, bringing an uncertain future for many loyal and dedicated staff.
After losing his job at Barrhead Travel last month James Rowe is in such a position, having worked in the firm’s Newcastle branch right up until lockdown, and after a period on furlough, made redundant.
Rowe thought he’d bounced back quickly securing a job at Hays Travel, but ongoing uncertainty has seen his starting date put on hold until September.
“It’s been an incredibly stressful experience and there’s still so much worry. You go from one day doing the job you love to being stuck in this situation – I can’t see things getting better any time soon.
“I’m an incredibly proud person and I’ve had to sign on. It was hard to do but I’ve got no other choice to pay my bills.
“I’ve got friends across the industry who don’t know how they’re going to feed their children. People see big companies on the news but it’s the impact on individual people that’s so tough.”
Like Rowe, Matt Clayden has also been made redundant, working his last day at Kuoni this week having previously managed its Oxford Street store.
He’s making plans to set up his own agency despite travel’s turmoil, but fears the impact on the sector will be longstanding.
“So many people may have to leave the industry and I worry all the amazing experience and knowledge will be lost,” he shares. “Travel feels like a forgotten industry, just being left to fend for itself.”
For Lorraine Bain her departure from business travel specialist Reed & MacKay was her second redundancy in less than 12 months, having worked for Thomas Cook at the time of its collapse.
“It’s heart-breaking seeing so many good people lose their jobs. I’ve been in travel 30 years and it’s never been this bad,” she says.
“The industry needs a helping hand and at this rate it could be years before it fully recovers.
“I want to try and stay in travel, but I’ll do whatever I can to get any kind of work right now.”
LEAVING TRAVEL TO PUT A ROOF OVER MY HEAD
Someone who has already had to accept her departure from the industry is Jo Colman-Bown.
Before Covid she was product manager at operator Tribes Travel, offering tailor-made sustainable trips to India, Africa and South America. Her love for the company is clear, and she is understanding of the difficult decision its owners had to make.
“They had no choice – it’s an independent family-run business and in times like these you have to take those options. We were going to have our best year in 2020 but Covid turned everything on its head.”
With a lack of opportunities, Colman-Bown has had to look outside the industry she loves, and has launched a start-up business delivering food hampers in her local area.
“It’s so hard to leave travel, but I don’t have an option, I have to keep a roof under my head,” she shares. “I grew up in the industry, but travel has just been devastated – it’s so sad.”
URGENT CLARITY NEEDED
While operators focusing mainly on Europe have been able to eke out some sales this summer – government’s fast-changing travel corridors aside – the plight of long-haul specialists is stark.
Many have seen huge swathes of their traditional destinations scratched from the map and off sale.
Bosses have decried the lack of clarity from the Foreign Office on when destinations will be reopened to British travellers and the methodology for quarantine measures being imposed on those returning from certain countries.
Latin Routes co-founder Martin Johnson says its departures for the region are cancelled up until October, with many countries not looking likely to reopen until later this year at the earliest.
Johnson is calling for “urgent clarification” on FCO policy.
“We’ve had to furlough a lot of staff. If there are no departures – then there’s no money in the bank,” he states – a situation faced by so many firms.
“The FCO approach is so ad hoc – you just can’t plan ahead at all when you can’t be sure of when people will be able to go. As an industry we’re getting desperate.”
While Latin Routes has spent the lull honing a new booking system and developing new tours for 2021, Johnson says the operator – like all travel companies – faces “a collision course” on the approach to 1 November and the impending end of the furlough scheme.
“Government has to work with us. Australia has extended its furlough scheme through to March – why couldn’t we have the same?
“If things continue then we’ll have to consider staff cuts in our business and we don’t want to do that at all, but that’s the risk.”
Claire Farley, owner of wildlife holidays specialist and Aito member 2by2 Holidays shares the same concerns.
“I’m fighting to keep hold of my remaining staff. I couldn’t bear losing them. They’re highly skilled and experienced and we are like a family.”
Despite customers rebooking for 2021 and a healthy amount of forward bookings, the lack of cash flow this year has meant a serious battle.
“We’ll do all we can to keep going. We need targeted help. I want the government to try and understand what it’s like to run a tour operator during this crisis – they have no idea of the struggles we’re facing.”
“We need sector specific support and I feel the industry-wide message of #SaveTravel is the first coherent communication we’ve all got behind,” says Johnson.
“It has really brought the sector together and it’s important we all support the campaign.”
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
Bad news has become so woefully regular that even as this piece was being written quarantine restrictions and FCO advice against travel to countries including France, the Netherlands and Malta came into force.
The move deals another hammer blow to the already floundering summer market.
Perhaps the most shocking – albeit familiar – demonstration of the government’s lack of action is the method for communicating such a major, far-reaching announcement – a tweet sent at 10pm.
The response from the travel industry and the #SaveTravel campaign is equally as condensed: Enough is enough.