Travel companies should be upfront with agents and consumers about the safety measures they are taking around Covid-19.
Speaking during TTG’s Restart Travel: Restoring Trust seminar last week, on a panel focused on health and safety, Zina Bencheikh, managing director EMEA, Intrepid Group; Iain Powell, head of trade sales & third party cruise, Saga; and Shane Riley, associate vice-president, UK & Australia, Virgin Voyages, set out the measures their own companies have taken to inspire trust among travellers.
Riley said Virgin Voyages had formed an expert advisory group made up of “some of the industry’s finest people” to inform on new hygiene processes and tech opportunities onboard. These include an air purification system from AtmosAir Solutions.
Riley added Virgin Voyages would be “significantly” reducing the number of passengers onboard when it recommences sailing in October.
“We won’t allow anyone onboard until they’ve proved they’re Covid-negative – we intend to test them before they get onboard,” he said.
“The ship will be a bubble – more so than a destination could be.”
He added there would be temperature checks throughout the ships that "will not impede on a passenger’s experience or disrupt their experience" and explained that passengers would be able to see medical crew onboard free of charge.
Powell revealed Saga would be releasing its comprehensive update on measures on 11 July. “We’ve got an opportunity with new ships to make some changes,” he said. “We already have private transfers, and can put customers into a bubble as soon as they leave the house.
“Things like ports are more challenging depending on what’s going on in that country.
“On dining – the recent relaxation of social distancing has been welcomed by the hospitality industry.
“We will inevitably have to change our dining, as most will – things like buffets become particularly difficult – but space in restaurants where we’ll have to seat peoples based on their cabin or who they’re travelling with – the reduction to one metre makes it a whole lot easier.
“We believe we can provide a very safe experience and some of the things we’re going to announce we think are very exciting and a bit different.”
From a small-group touring specialist perspective, Bencheikh said Intrepid was at an advantage in that it owns its DMC network.
“We can make sure anything we introduce is followed correctly,” she said.
“I think from a wider a perspective, safety has always been our priority.
“We suspended trips until September and the main reason is safety as want to be 100% sure we can operate in safe manner.
“We have created our own safety guidelines endorsed by the WTTC which was really important for customers and agents.”
Bencheikh added Intrepid was adopting a “phased” approach, looking into the regulations in local destinations.
“We’re risk-assessing destinations and trips one by one – each single accommodation, restaurant, tour leader answers questions that give us a score and let us know if we’re confident to re-operate that trip.”
She accepted there were possibly some itineraries that would need to be changed.
Not currently operating existing trips. Have just launched domestic retreats. Been able to select the suppliers we work with.
Education for agents
The panellists agreed it was important for agents and consumers alike to be informed on changes.
“The key thing is for the trade to get their head around what the industry is doing as a whole. Every brand has unique and effective protocols,” he said. “It’s great to hear other lines’ protocols – it means the whole industry is stepping up.”
Riley said Virgin Voyages held a webinar for 100 travel agents last week and has made available a 1.5-minute video and flyers agents can share with their customers detailing health and safety procedures onboard.
“We’re not expecting agents to be health and safety experts,” he said. “We want to make it easy so have broken it down into pieces.
“Want agents to be able to talk confidently about taking care of people.”
Powell added: “You can’t shy away from it. It’s something you have to acknowledge and you have to talk about what we’re doing to make travelling safe.
“In the short-term I think it’s going to be one of the more important marketing messages around why you should choose Saga.
“We have begun some press advertising with the messaging, and we will go out a bit more heavily in a few weeks.”
He said Saga would produce a toolkit for agents too.
Bencheikh agreed it was important to be transparent, as it “was in March when countries were locking down”. She added many enquiries at present centred on “what if” scenarios.