Linda Fallon-Brant, manager of Co-operative Travel in Finchfield, Wolverhampton, recounts being told she and her team were ‘amazing’ for helping to get a stranded customer home from the Maldives. Juliet Dennis reports.

Q. How did your clients get stranded due to the coronavirus crisis?
A. Brenda is one of our longest-standing customers and an avid traveller. We booked her and her sister-in‑law on an all-inclusive Mercury Holidays package for March to Adaaran Select Hudhuran Fushi in the Maldives.

She is 76 but was of the view she was going no matter what. It was only when they went to get the seaboat transfer for their flight home that they were told they couldn’t leave unless they had a certificate which said the island was coronavirus-free. Nobody had one; it was a new rule.

Q. How did you get your clients home?
A. Brenda messaged us via WhatsApp as her phone wasn’t working properly and she couldn’t call. My assistant manager Amanda and I used our personal mobiles to keep in touch with her. Brenda was a little flustered as she didn’t know how she was going to get home. We got on to Mercury and told them our client was stuck on an island in lockdown. The hotel wasn’t answering our calls.

We kept telling her to bear with us. She was worried she would have to pay extra for a flight or hotel nights, but we spoke to Mercury and they covered all costs and sourced a flight. It was difficult because of restrictions on transiting to connecting flights unless passengers had the right paperwork. The hotel got Brenda the paperwork to say the island was virus-free, but it took time; they had to stay three extra nights. Originally, they were due to fly with Eithad via Doha, but in the end the best option was with Aeroflot via Moscow. As soon as she landed, she messaged to say she was on UK soil. It was lovely to hear.

“Our customer was worried she would have to pay extra for a flight or hotel nights, but we spoke to Mercury and they covered all costs and sourced a flight.”

Q. Were you worried you might not be able to get them home?
A. Not really. I’ve been in travel for 25 years and not a lot fazes me. The operator had a duty of care. I’ve had similar situations and you just do everything you can. I instil that in my team. We are passionate about what we do and we were constantly ringing Mercury. We told Brenda she could contact us any time. She did message at 3am once and Amanda went straight back to her. She was reassured; she knew we had it in hand.

Q. What was your client’s reaction to being home?
A. She told us we were amazing! She got back just as the UK went into lockdown. She wrote a lovely letter to our chief executive. We definitely have a customer for life and her sister-in-law says she will never travel without booking through a travel agent. She said we had gone above and beyond her expectations but it’s part of our job to make sure clients are safe.

Q. Have you had to deal with any other customer crises during lockdown?
A. That was the biggest but we did have customers who had to come home when the lockdown came into force and clients in hotels that were in lockdown. We always do ‘welcome home’ calls but this time the calls were more to say “Are you home OK?”

“We definitely have a customer for life and her sister-in-law says she will never travel without booking through a travel agent.”

Q. What type of calls are you taking from clients now? Are they still mostly about refunds?
A. Calls about refunds have calmed down. We have customers asking us when they can travel again; not knowing makes it so difficult. There is so much uncertainty.

Q. Are you looking forward to the day you can return to your branch?
A. Definitely! It’s been interesting working from home. It was a new environment for me and I’ve added new skills. But as much as it was a novelty for the first few weeks, I miss the camaraderie. People are expecting changes but I don’t think the new normal will be such a shock.


Mercury Holidays praises ‘the value of an agent’

Mercury Holidays worked with Co-operative Travel to bring Brenda home safely. General manager Jonathan Bugeja said the situation was made harder because Etihad had no available seats before it stopped flying the route on March 25, two days after the clients were due to leave.

He said: “After searching flights for a couple of hours, we found some flights which departed on March 26 with Aeroflot which flew via Moscow and had a decent transit time. There were very few options available at this time, due to lots of airlines cancelling their flights, and these were not easy to find, but we are glad we were able to and got these clients home.”

“The situation was made harder because Etihad had no available seats before it stopped flying the route on March 25, two days after the clients were due to leave.”

The joint effort helped to reassure the customer, he said. adding: “We are grateful for the assistance of Midcounties Co-operative Travel; they were in contact with the clients as well as ourselves. The reassurance the agent was able to give the clients while we dealt with the situation goes to show the value of a travel agent, not just for a customer but for the tour operator as well.”

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