Know your value in the new world, says dnata Travel Group – Europe chief executive John Bevan

It’s extraordinary to think that it’s almost a year since my phone pinged late one evening with a text from our head of facilities telling me that a colleague in our Kingston office had tested positive for Covid-19. It sparked a chain of events that has profoundly changed me, and the businesses I run.

Like everyone else in the industry at that time, I’d watched the reports of this new virus with growing unease. We’re all accustomed to crises – it goes with the territory in such a huge and complex industry as travel. But this felt…different. As a precaution, we’d established our ‘coronavirus task force’ a few days before that fateful text arrived and had already put some procedures and plans in place to look after our people and protect operations.

It turns out that was one of my better ideas as the subsequent weeks – and months – became a tsunami

of challenges. I was grateful we’d made those early preparations and were somewhat ahead of the curve.

Those challenges will be familiar to many of you: the repatriation of thousands of customers; a complete reversal of our businesses as we fought to refund as quickly as we could; moving staff to homeworking; balancing the conflicting imperatives of maintaining good service levels with the urgent need to manage costs; and, as the weeks dragged on, the difficult decisions that we had to take about furloughing and saying goodbye to valued colleagues as we were forced to reshape our organisation.

We’ve been resilient…

I’m also reminded of the incredible, and continued, resilience of the travel industry and our partners at that time, and the way organisations – ourselves included – came together to try to do their best for their people and their customers as the world we knew fell apart.

But even as we continue to be swept by the waves of this crisis 12 months on, I am using this anniversary to reflect how travel can change for the better.

I think that, pre-pandemic, we’d become collectively complacent. A race to the bottom, with margin the first victim of an obsession on volume that we assumed would only ever expand, meant we weren’t as focused on our fundamental purpose: to look after our customers and ensure they have a good holiday. We were hung up on page rankings, not relationships; drunk on growth instead of value.

…now we must be accountable

When things restart – and they will – I don’t believe we should, or could, return to those days. We have a better-educated and better-informed consumer now. We’ve all had a hard lesson in the Package Travel Regulations and those of us who have abided by their requirements will surely benefit at the expense of those still forcing Refund Credit Notes on their agent partners and customers.

In the future, it hopefully won’t be as easy for the bad practices and fluid interpretation of regulation to be glossed over in the name of selling anything to anyone at any price. If we’re to rebuild trust, we have to be ready to be accountable.

But, for me, travel agents and the industry at large have a golden opportunity to reset, and make a virtue of the value we offer. We know there is demand out there for the products and services we sell, but we have to have evolved and learnt from this experience. Agent and operator expertise will never be in more demand as customers seek a way to make their travel dreams come true in a world where there are more barriers to doing so than ever. And that expertise needs to come at a price.

So, in the new world, be brave. Protect your margin, know your value and don’t be tempted by the fool’s gold of a booking for booking’s sake.

We may never have such a good opportunity to emerge stronger.