Comment: Travel companies will adapt and be stronger

Vaccine news is good, but tough times still lie ahead, says ATD Travel Services chief executive Oliver Brendon  

The good news is that, thanks to the vaccine, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is, it’s a long tunnel.

As a result, there is still a sense of anxiety in the country, among family and friends and, of course, in the travel industry. This is hardly surprising.

Everyone is stuck waiting to see how long it will take the government to roll out the vaccine, how soon other vaccines can be developed and how effective the various treatments will prove to be. So it is impossible to plan ahead. The indecision, constant changing of rules and fears about the future are debilitating for society; for companies and customers.

The damage caused by Covid and lockdowns will be much more far-reaching than is apparent from the meticulously recorded cases, hospitalisations, and deaths which we read about daily. I find it baffling that no proper assessment has been done on the harm that lockdowns have on the economy, health and society. The government is busy creating an illusion of control over an unpredictable situation and a virus that may prove as hard to suppress entirely as the common cold.  It should be taking stock of the full extent of the calamity.

There are many vulnerable groups of people who have been severely disadvantaged by this crisis and by the government’s failures: those who are scared and lonely in care homes; the elderly who cannot hug their grandchildren; young people without a job who face a future of debt, high taxes and limited opportunity; cancer patients who have missed critical treatment. I think about these groups on my morning run around Tooting Common and try to remain grateful that I still have a business and am neither alone nor lonely.

Despite knowing I am one of the fortunate ones, running a travel business this year has been a demoralising struggle. The latest lockdown prompted another surge of refunds and a further reduction in new business. And this winter the industry will face more logistical and financial challenges. Growth plans have been postponed, projects canned, careers gone, creativity stifled, tech developments written off and millions lost. There is only one objective now – survival.

And what does science tell us about survival in the animal kingdom? That it is not necessarily the strongest or cleverest who survive, but rather the species that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. Without essential changes, organisms fail to compete, and die. Polar bears have adapted to have slightly webbed feet to help them swim.  Ironically, even Covid is mutating to survive.

Travel companies have had to adapt to tightening credit terms, new processes, reduced resources, difficult bonding renewals and turning a back-office from a tech platform designed to take bookings into one that could process thousands upon thousands of refunds. My admiration goes out to those who have adapted and are still standing. It is often said that the industry is resilient, and it is certainly proving to be.

It is tough for those of us running travel companies but probably even more so for employees who have not worked since March. Like most travel firms, we planned to bring our people back to work gradually from November 2 using the enhanced Job Support Scheme. On October 30, the government postponed the JSS and extended the more generous Job Retention Scheme [furlough] which pays people not to work. Consequently, the day before people were due to return, we had to email them to say that they would remain not working and on furlough which – in the words of one – was a ‘crushing disappointment’. People are desperate for purpose and structure in their lives; there are only so many runs to go on, boxsets to watch, recipes to cook and new skills to learn.

In such an uncertain environment, and with Covid going on for so long, it is sometimes difficult to retain the necessary faith in the future of the travel industry. I have been working in it long enough to remember the first Gulf War and other worldwide crises such as September 11 and the banking collapse.  During every one of these crises – and often during this pandemic – commentators and journalists have predicted that ‘the world will never be the same again’.

By and large though, the world always does return to normal.  And the vaccine gives us all reason to be cautiously optimistic about the prospect of some travel returning with restrictions by Easter next year and with fewer restrictions by summer 2021.  People will return to work and to the high streets and there will be a pent-up desire to get away from it all.

So, while travel companies have had to adapt and change, they will look much the same after the crisis as they did before it. Even though a polar bear has slightly webbed feet, it is still a bear.

Travel companies will have weaker balance sheets, and fewer people, but slicker internal processes, new ways of acquiring and communicating with customers and lower costs. We will have to be similar because the desires of the travelling public will not have changed much and there will be demand for our products and services. This too shall pass and, when it does, I believe we will have adapted to become stronger and more resilient for the future.

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