Business loans, refunds and store reopenings were all front of mind when TTG caught up with Agent Matters’ first-ever panellists to hear how they were faring six weeks on. Tom Parry reports.
Haslemere Travel’s Gemma Antrobus, Oasis Travel boss Sandra Corkin and Tony Mann, director of Idle Travel, agreed that although progress had been made on certain fronts, battles still raged fiercely – and frustratingly – on others.
After the UK government’s lockdown- easing announcement on 10 May, each owner told TTG news editor Jennifer Morris they were putting plans in place to reopen their branches in the coming weeks.
Northern Ireland-based Corkin suspected July was more likely for her, as did Antrobus, having recently moved to new shop premises in her town. In the meantime, she urged fellow agents to carry out risk assessments to put staff and customers’ minds at ease.
Targeting a June reopening, Mann explained he had set about introducing a range of in-shop health measures – ordering protective screens and hand sanitising units and adapting Idle’s in-store policy to limit customer numbers.
Elsewhere, the agents agreed the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan was worth considering, but advised thinking carefully about how best to spend it. Corkin and Antrobus said they would both apply for it, but would perceive it as a “bounce-forward” loan, rather than bounceback.
“How can we use it rather than just surviving on it? I’m quite debt-averse [so] it makes it easier to manage in my head if I’m using it for a purpose,” explained Antrobus. “Use money to make money.”
Mann, who had his application approved last week, suggested placing the money in a separate account as a “just in case”.
“It’s something for us to have to plan for next year,” he said. “It gives me a bit of a buffer in case we need it. There’s nothing to pay on it for a year, so if I don’t use it then it can go back.”
On the subject of government support, Corkin said she was disappointed by the Northern Ireland Assembly not offering a grant per branch as is available to companies in England, leaving six-store Oasis with just one £25,000 grant for the whole business.
“I know some businesses in Northern Ireland are fighting that because they’re saying ‘why should it be any different?’” Corkin explained, adding she would be offering her voice to the cause.
Discussing staff on furlough, Corkin stressed the importance of keeping non-working employees involved in the business with training, social events and regular team updates.
Mann said he was still deciding how best to bring staff back from furlough and praised the scheme for the speed at which funds were paid to businesses. “We might do three weeks on and three weeks off [with staff],” he predicted. Antrobus too said new business demand would determine when staff would be recalled from furlough.
“If the demand isn’t there with bookings coming in yet, then we’ll work as we are currently – we need to get that balance right.”
Turning to the situation with customers and the ongoing battle to secure refunds, Mann said excuses from operators still withholding reimbursements were “starting to irritate”.
“It’s six weeks on now and they should have a plan,” he said. “To say ‘don’t come back to us for a refund before December or March 2021’ is just ridiculous. It puts us in dispute with customers.”
He said Westminster’s lack of action over refund credit notes and the industry’s failure to secure government’s support for the option was “embarrassing”, adding: “We used to sell dreams and at times we’ve been dealing with nightmares.”
Corkin revealed she had reported a supplier who “wasn’t offering a credit note and had given no timeline for a refund” to Abta for breach of its code of conduct – but was yet to receive a response.
Antrobus suggested Abta’s time could be “better spent” than coming down on operators over refunds. “By the time [any action is taken], won’t we all be through all of this?” she questioned.
Asked how each agency was speaking to customers about refunds and amendments, Antrobus suggested encouraging clients to move their bookings into 2021 – with price increases likely and availability for next year already filling up.
“It’s part of the conversations we’re having – ‘get a 2021 holiday at the same price as 2020 and you’re winning’,” she said. “‘Travel will become more expensive [so] get in now. Don’t be waiting for some kind of last-minute deal because availability isn’t going to be there’.”
Assessing recent business secured, Antrobus said Haslemere had seen “a very small handful” of enquiries, with the earliest departure date a long-haul trip for November. Corkin said Oasis had “definitely seen a bit of an upturn in new bookings” over the past few weeks with Christmas, New Year and next summer proving popular.
Mann spoke of his “shock” at bagging sales for Florida and Iceland after posting offers on social media in the week commencing 11 May. “We probably did in a week what we’ve done in the whole of April. I was quite pleased.”