Covid-19 has already pushed three Irish travel agencies into permanent closure – Rathgar Travel, East West Travel, and USIT Travel – but now the Government has ruled that travel agents must continue to pay refunds to clients who cancel bookings, even though some airlines are attempting to save cash flow by not paying those refunds to the travel agents, writes Neil Steedman. (For details, see: Guidance on the right of travellers to terminate package travel contracts due to the extraordinary circumstances resulting from Covid-19.) Will this push more agencies towards bankruptcy?
Governments around the world have closed their borders, airlines have been grounded, cruise lines harboured, resorts, hotels and attractions have shut, and so, with forward bookings few and far between, travel agencies have had to lay off staff and put 80%-100% of those remaining on short time. Nevertheless, outstanding efforts have been and are being made by agency staff – often out of hours and without pay – to get their clients home, change existing bookings, and obtain refunds on cancelled bookings. Those efforts have been highly appreciated by their clients – but by few mainstream media and by even fewer politicians or Government Ministers.
ITTN asked some travel agents around Ireland how they have been coping:
The following questions were sent to eight agencies, two in each province, on Thursday 26th March, two days after the Government had announced that: “All non-essential retail outlets are to close to members of the public”. The Department had subsequently confirmed to ITTN that “non-essential” outlets included retail travel agents. Many agencies had already decided to work behind closed doors, but nevertheless our first survey question was:
“Have you been officially advised that you must close to members of the public?”
None of the agents had been so advised. Two had decided to work behind closed doors since Monday 16th March. Three voiced what others were probably thinking: “I would suggest that we are very essential as we are still repatriating clients and trying to recoup clients’ funds”, and “I have emailed the ITAA to lobby the Government about our work being essential in repatriating clients, rearranging holidays and processing refunds”, and “We will contest this because we are still repatriating customers and providing essential ongoing support in terms of changing flight schedules and upcoming accommodation closures. Additionally we need to constantly intervene in bookings to reduce costs for our customers and to keep the bookings alive and to keep up with changing rules in different countries.”
A fourth added a poignant note: “We have reduced our staff and will continue to work from the office. It is impossible to work from home as we are based in the west of Ireland and our internet and mobile services are very bad.”
By percentage, how many staff have (a) been let go, and (b) put on three-or-less-day weeks?
As well as some being let go, the number of staff put on short-time ranged from 60% to 100%: “One was let go and everyone is currently on reduced days, and on a two-day week from next week”, and “100% of them were firstly put on part-time and then we temporarily laid off 70%”. Others said: “All staff are now working from home and we hope to take advantage of the 80% for furloughed staff from April”, and “10% have been temporarily laid-off, 70% are on a three-day week, and 20% have left – and we have no plans to replace them.”
When do you predict that the global travel industry will begin to return to ‘normal’?
This question brought the widest range of responses. The most optimistic said: “We will be monitoring the situation through April and are hoping to re-open on 5th May”, while the most pessimistic replied: “Next year at the earliest and it will take a long time to recover from then.”
Other comments were: “Certainly April and May are a write-off, possibly June”, “We are hoping for June into July and full capacity by the end of July”, “I would love to hope from July”, “I think we will see a ‘new normal’ in October/November”, and “Probably towards the end of the year.”
Another included words of caution: “Early September at the earliest and, even then, people will just be buying the basics, as life’s little luxuries like holidays and eating out will take a back seat until March 2021. The industry will need to instil confidence in the consumer – in terms of gaining their faith in cruising in particular. I just hope that the world does not become a place of raised levels of paranoia and germaphobia.”
But we will give the final word on this question to the agent who said: “No idea and speculation is futile as none of us know.”
Which three suppliers have kept your agency the best informed and provided the most assistance in your efforts to resolve your clients’ problems in recent weeks?
Bookabed was the favourite here, being nominated by four agencies, with one stating: “Bookabed have been excellent in their assistance and cancelling accommodation with no fees.”
Ryanair received three nominations, while Qatar Airways, Silversea Cruises, Royal Caribbean, and Jet2 each got two. Others who were mentioned were Air Canada, Turkish Airlines, Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Princess Cruises, Travel Focus, St Lucia Tourism Board, Bedsonline, Amadeus, Accident & General, Travel Centres, Worldchoice, and the ITAA.
Although ITTN did not ask agents to nominate their worst suppliers, two chose to do so. One said: “Most of the airlines and cruise companies have been keeping the trade up-to-date. However, my issue is that they keep changing the rules – airlines are not giving back refunds and are forcing people to schedule a change or take a voucher. Ryanair have been very good – no messing and refunding the customer if a flight is cancelled, but the suppliers that we have found to be the worst are Aer Lingus and TUI.” The other commented: “The worst supplier, it has to be said, was and still is Aer Lingus.”
Finally, what is your most positive story arising out of the current situation?
A recurring theme among the responses to this question was the agents’ deep appreciation of the outstanding efforts made by their staffs – often out of hours and without pay – to get their clients home, change existing bookings, and obtain refunds on those cancelled. Another was the appreciation of those efforts expressed by their clients.
“We were one of the first to respond in terms of contacting our clients to advise them of possible changes that may arise due to the ever changing situation. Our team were thus able to break the news gently, without causing fear or panic, and were able to activate our ‘safe care’ plan for when the time came the following week. Working with our preferred partners and key suppliers made for a highly efficient and quite seamless process. By following our instincts and basing our actions on how much the financial markets were being ‘spooked’ by developments, we and – more importantly – our clients were safeguarded and they were on their way home.”
“This is an unprecedented situation. Staff and clients have recognised this and have been extremely supportive throughout. While vast numbers booked online and have been unable to get any reassurance from their online vendors, all our clients have had direct contact from us and we have put action plans in place for them.”
“I cannot speak highly enough of our staff who have worked long hours in very difficult circumstances in ensuring that all of our clients are looked after – either by getting them home, rescheduling, or securing refunds on cancelled holidays. The general feedback from clients is very supportive.”
“Every member of staff came in to work on their files despite being paid off, which is quite heartening in the situation.”
“Staff have been working around the clock to help change clients’ travel arrangements. I am so fortunate to have such a committed team. We have also received many messages of thank you and support from clients.”
“The amount of phone calls that we have received from our clients to thank us for providing them with assistance in date changes on their holidays.”
“Among the many appreciative emails that we received from clients, one said: ‘I just want to take this opportunity to thank all your staff for a great job under the abnormal conditions in which we all find ourselves. My family’s return flights from Perth had been cancelled a few times but with all your hard work – and I am sure very frustrating phone calls – your team persisted and got me and my family home. We all appreciate your team work. In distressful times true quality rises to the challenge in hand and your travel company delivered. We look forward to booking more holidays in the future.’ My other major positive is the determination of all our staff to take care of customers in a calm and efficient manner.”
“The positive feedback and appreciation received from many customers of our plight and vowing to do business with us in the future.”