Agents need to trust operator partners to offer customers the best service, says If Only’s general manager Gordon McCreadie

Covid-19 has thrown one curveball after another as agents, operators and airlines have struggled to navigate the ever-changing travel landscape. Our industry is resilient and that gives me confidence we will bounce back bigger and better once that all-important vaccine is rolled out.

Encouraging news last week suggests that may well be pre-Christmas, alongside a possible reduction in the quarantine period for travellers returning to the UK. If both come to fruition, this could be the first light at the end of a very long tunnel for us all.

There have been many lessons over the past 12 months. For me, the most apparent and important is that the relationship between travel agent and tour operator has to change. We talk a lot about the ‘new normal’ of travel in response to Covid-19, but I believe a necessary shift in the way we work together with agents has been on the cards for some time and has simply been underlined by current circumstances.

With updates, cancellations and emergency contact required almost daily, current procedures don’t facilitate easy interaction with mutual customers, prompting more issues than resolutions. This makes me wonder how we operators can work better with our valued agent partners for the benefit of all.

Reluctance to share

Historically, there has been a reluctance for agents to share customer details with operators. Part of me totally gets this – I’m sure many agents feel it threatens their customer relationships if the operator doesn’t handle a situation well or, worse, sets out to poach those customers. As a 100% B2B operator, If Only sells exclusively through our travel agent partners, which has definitely been a big draw for many working with us.

As yet, however, this hasn’t spread to sharing consumer contact details (which would be stored in line with GDPR rules). For a long time, this was a minor inconvenience, when it became necessary to contact customers in-resort in the case of rare emergencies. However, when Thomas Cook ceased trading, the issues associated with this policy were illuminated. With stores closed and customers clamouring for refunds or rebookings, operators were unable to fulfil demand with ease due to a lack of contact information. It was ultimately left to the customer to contact the operator, by which stage stress and frustration had usually set in. Clearly, this was a problem that had to be solved.

Something has to change

Fast forward to the present and the issue is more troubling than ever. With an unprecedented level of changes and cancellations, and customers having to fly home early with little notice as quarantine rules change, operators are regularly pulling their hair out trying to get in contact with the necessary parties.

While I appreciate agents are keen to nurture their relationships with mutual customers, without interference from operators, this has left many customers without a point of contact and assistance as thousands of agents have been placed on furlough and, sadly, many businesses have ceased to trade. I think we’re all in agreement that something has to change to ensure we’re prepared for the future if a situation like this was, heaven forbid, to happen again.

Trust is key as we plan for 2021, when we all hope to see an upswing in bookings. This year has shown we are, on the whole, a unified industry, keen to support one another through troubled times. But this has to be reflected in how we interact with our mutual customers. Agents must have faith in operators, and trust them with selected customer details to ensure that, in their absence or in emergency, the customer is still receiving the high level of service they expect.

On the flipside, operators have an obligation to set out exactly how we would store and use these details. Agents must choose to work with operators they trust, who they are prepared to share this information with, for all our mutual benefits.

We need industry bodies such as Abta to be advocating such positive changes, highlighting that we are ultimately stronger when we pull together and that closer working relationships will lead to a happier, and hopefully more fruitful, 2021.

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