Interview: Ciara Foley, Managing Director, Platinum Travel

Last November, Dublin-based Platinum Travel was announced as ITTN’s Travel Agency of the Year for 2019. Ciara Foley, Managing Director, in an interview with ITTN’s Neil Steedman on how the agency has been coping with the Covid-19 ‘shutdown’, says: “The true value of travel agents has been proven once again during this pandemic and we need to ensure that we remember our worth when are back trading full time again.”

Platinum has always used home workers. Has this been of benefit during the pandemic?

It has been extremely beneficial. We were very fortunate that we were already set up with all our team to work from home, so there was no drastic change to how we all worked on a day-to-day basis. By keeping our overheads low, it was an added bonus to continue to work in the same format as before. We still have our full team in place thanks to the support from the Government’s Covid-19 payments. We are in constant contact with all our team, giving them all the support necessary to deal with ongoing issues with clients’ bookings and ensuring we keep up our high level of customer service at all times.

Platinum Travel focuses on selling travel to the USA, but with the US Government’s ban on arrivals and the Irish Government’s advice against non-essential travel, have you sent any clients to the USA over the past few months – and how are forward bookings?

Unfortunately all our bookings to the USA have been cancelled since March and until end of July. We have re-booked approximately 80% of our clients to travel in 2021. Our clients’ safety is of paramount importance to us so we are not encouraging any current travel to the USA until all restrictions have been lifted by President Trump and our own government in Ireland.

On a positive note, bookings for the USA are starting to pick up for 2021 and we are seeing an increased interest in visits to the National Parks, such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, National Glacier, etc. Fly-drives are ideal holidays for social distancing and, with the wide open spaces in the National Parks, the USA is the perfect place to plan for 2021. We are also doing a huge amount of training on our USA product with all our team here and working closely with Brand USA to ensure that we have a very good USA portfolio of itineraries to offer our clients for next year.

How has Platinum Travel responded to the current non-travel scenario?

We work very closely with The Travel Corporation’s Uniworld river cruises and Insight Vacations guided tours and so, because we saw our business drop with them, we decided to showcase their sister property in Ireland, Ashford Castle, a Red Carnation Hotel. We know our clients like something very special when they go away and we know that Ashford Castle, and indeed Ashford Lodge on the same grounds, can give them the luxury treat at home this summer.

We have had a huge uptake on our offers and, as these were exclusive to Platinum Travel, it was lovely to be able to showcase these to our clients. This has also since snowballed into a demand for other luxury properties in Ireland, so we have been delighted to help our clients with stays here also.

Are business travel clients deciding that some travel is ‘essential’ – and have you used private charters?

We have had a number of enquiries for private charters but that has just been general interest up to now. Our corporate business, which is quite a significant part of what we do, has come to a complete standstill. We don’t anticipate this picking up again until September – the summer months are generally quiet in business travel anyway. Because of company policies in our corporate client accounts, all business travel is on hold during the pandemic.

Some European countries are starting to open up again, and the Irish Government may drop its ‘non-essential travel’ advice and 14-day quarantine for arrivals from 29 June. Which destinations are receiving the most interest in terms of enquiries and bookings?

For this year, all the enquiries and bookings we are receiving are generally close to home, in Europe – for example the Canary Islands, Portugal, and the Balearic Islands. I believe that people will feel safest staying in Europe and close to home for the next few months ahead.

How is Platinum Travel managing to keep itself informed, and also its clients, on the fast-changing entry conditions and requirements in various countries? Is your GDS providing up-to-date and accurate information?

We are in constant communication with our clients and updating them regularly with the varying information that applies to their booking and destination. The situation is so fluid that it is near impossible to see anything further than a week or two ahead at times. We feel that by keeping in touch by phone and email on a regular basis, even if we don’t know the status of a destination, reassures the client that they are in good hands and that we are watching everything for them. So far, yes, the GDS has been up-to-date for us, but again it changes so quickly, we need to be on top of it every day.

Has it been of benefit during the pandemic that Platinum Travel is a member of Travel Centres?

It has been a huge benefit being part of the Travel Centres consortium during the pandemic. Dominic Burke and his team have been absolutely outstanding and they have really gone above and beyond for their agents during this time. We have weekly group member meetings, daily updates with all supplier news, and constant communication regarding what aids are available to us as agents from Enterprise Ireland, Government assistance, etc. We take huge comfort in knowing, by being a member with Travel Centres, that they are always there if we need them for support and advice.

How supportive has the Irish Travel Agents Association been of travel agents during the pandemic?

The ITAA has been exceptional during the past few months. We have not been a member of the ITAA, for our own reasons, over the past few years. However, I firmly believe in having one organisation for the travel industry in Ireland and, following the extensive work that the ITAA has done, I believe that they are the body to do so. The work they have done has benefited the entire industry, not just existing ITAA members, so it is important that we express our gratitude back and show solidarity by considering our membership with them. I have already reached out to them to look into becoming a member.

Finally, have you learnt any lessons from the pandemic?

I am very much a ‘glass half full’ kind of person. Initially the fear and panic that set in was something I have never experienced before. However, now that we are three months down the line, the panic has disappeared and the fear has turned into drive. We have learnt a huge amount about ourselves, how we run our business, and what is really important. We finally have time to work ‘on’ our business instead of ‘in’ our business. I am not saying it isn’t hard, it is, and we have been tested over and over again, but we are a very resilient industry and we will do everything in our power to rise again.

One thing we have to ensure going forward is that we put a strong value on what we do. The true value of travel agents has been proven once again during this pandemic and we need to ensure that we remember our worth when are back trading full time again.

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