High street agents are reporting a slow sales recovery and a rise in customers questioning Covid rules in holiday resorts.
The first flights to destinations on the UK government’s ‘safe’ lists took off earlier this month, but retailers said holidaymakers were still cautious about travelling.
The Advantage Travel Partnership, which represents hundreds of independent agencies, said bookings were “moving in a positive direction”, while individual agencies said sales were on a “slow burn” with some describing year-on-year booking drops as a “disaster”.
Kelly Cookes, leisure director at Advantage, said a third of members’ bookings last week were for 2020, with many made last-minute.
“People are booking later, to go within five to seven days. Things are changing so quickly people want to know their area and the resort are not in lockdown before they go,” she said.
For 2021, clients were choosing ten or 14-night breaks instead of seven nights, spending more, and there were more group and multigenerational bookings, Cookes added.
Tailor Made Travel chief executive Simon Morgan called current trading “tough”. He said: “There’s conflicting information, uncertainty and local lockdowns are now fairly inevitable. The travelling public are voting to stay at home and focus on 2021.”
The 20-branch miniple has transferred more than half its £20 million booking revenue for 2020 travel to 2021. “That’s obviously a cash flow changer and we’ve acted accordingly with our bankers, making arrangements to correct cash positions,” he said.
Morgan said average spend for 2021 was up, adding: “People are choosing to combine funds for both seasons into one larger experience.”
Holidays to the Maldives, the Caribbean, particularly larger resorts, and villa and apartment bookings were popular, he added.
Lee Hunt, owner of Deben Travel, which is not taking bookings for July or August, said: “Last week our sales were down 85% year on year and 80% down versus last July, so a disaster really. We have a few bookings for September and October. The majority are for summer 2021 but nowhere near the volume we would usually have.”
Spear Travels chairman Peter Cookson said sales were on a “slow burn” but added: “On the plus side, rebookings are up and cancellations well down.”
Fred Olsen Travel said 2020 holidays accounted for 50% of its bookings last week, with head of commercial Paul Hardwick saying: “There is definite appetite for this year.”
He said there was interest in the Canary Islands and the Mediterranean for September, and that “winter sun is in demand too”.
Hardwick said there were also some ” big bookings coming in” for future travel, including a 2022 world cruise with Cunard, “which is great to see”.
Agents also said they faced more questions on issues such as mask-wearing in destinations.
Cookes said: “People have accepted that the journey will be difficult, now they want to know what the holiday will feel like. Will they have to wear a mask at the pool or in the property?”
Cookson said: “Government ‘advice’ has caused a great deal of confusion. It confuses us, the travel experts, so the general public have no chance. There is general concern about the travel process.”
RB Collection joint managing director Oliver Broad said agents were being seen as more important because of the need for professional advice. He said: “Clients are definitely confused. This is both putting them off going anywhere right now and helping remind them just how important it is to use an independent agent.”
Barrhead Travel has created an information hub on its staff intranet as agents spend longer going through travel advice with clients.
President Jacqueline Dobson called for more direct communication from the government. She said: “The first port of call for holidaymakers is usually their trusted local travel agent and so it is really important the respective governments or administrations are engaging with our businesses and discussing new decisions or guidelines so we can manage that flow of information.”
Agents also reported low footfall. Carrick Travel director Tracey Carter said: “We are now starting to see clients by pre arranged appointment but the majority are dealing with us over the phone or by email.”
Spear Travels said it planned to change its shop appointment system, saying it is “putting people off” coming into stores.
Agents said the added administration, extra time needed on bookings and continuing aggravation on refunds was also causing low morale among teams. Hunt added: “Staff are generally fed up.”