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Interview: Autumn will be a ‘white-knuckle ride’ for travel

Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer speaks to Ian Taylor ahead of the association’s Travel Convention

Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer has warned the autumn will be “a white-knuckle ride” for many businesses despite the relaxation of restrictions on international travel from next week.

The removal of the amber country list and pre-departure tests for vaccinated travellers from October 4 and replacement of the day-two PCR test requirement by a cheaper rapid test later in the month have already spurred bookings.

Tanzer noted: “The changes are welcome.” But he insisted: “They come at the end of a lost summer and companies are struggling for cash.

“It’s still very difficult. Businesses are right on the edge. More than 50% of members surveyed [earlier in the year] said they would run out of cash within six months. The demands of creditors are becoming greater. We don’t want a clatter of failures.”

He argued: “The Treasury has not been at all forthcoming. We presume they don’t want to see companies fail. [But] travel is such a seasonal business, unaligned with the rest of the economy, and businesses have now missed two summers and a winter.

“The chancellor is refusing the one sector under intense pressure. People don’t want to give up, but are struggling to keep going, particularly SMEs. Not only is there no cash coming through the door but financial service providers are squeezing. Some merchant acquirers are saying they’ll withhold cash because they aren’t confident businesses will make it. The noose is very tight. It’s going to be a white-knuckle ride for a lot of our members.”

Yet Tanzer defended the demands Abta has made of members seeking to renew bonds with the association this September, pointing out: “Abta is a BEIS-approved [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] body.

“We have to protect customers’ money [and] because of refund credit notes there are potentially 18 months of bookings on the books. New money coming in also has to be protected. This is not Abta protecting itself. These aren’t Abta’s rules. It is us helping members comply with the law, and we’re in close dialogue with members, helping them talk to financial providers.”

Rebuilding relations

Tanzer hopes the Travel Convention in London on October 13 will help bring the industry back together for the challenges ahead.

He argued: “There has never been a time when, at every level, there have been such major questions. The convention is a chance to discuss these and get answers. It has a place in the calendar as an event that looks at what is happening in the world and in our industry and at what you can take from that for your business.

“It has also always been strong at providing a networking opportunity. That has been difficult with virtual events, so I’m pleased the convention this year is a hybrid event. You can attend in person or online. We’ve had a lot of separation over the last 18 months and there is a real appetite to get back together, talk to people, have a drink and rebuild some of the relationships that have been in suspension for a long time.”

Tanzer highlighted the range of speakers, including brand consultant Graham Hales, and Tom Johnson, chief executive of consumer trends consultancy Trajectory, “who will ask ‘what has changed?’, not just due to Covid, [but what] consumer behaviours may be different, and how that could impact your business”.

He added: “We have Mohsin Zaidi, a barrister, campaigner and writer, who will talk about diversity and mental wellbeing. And, of course, we have industry leaders talking about how they’ve dealt with the challenges and the opportunities they see coming out of Covid-19.

“Andrew Swaffield, chief commercial officer at Virgin Group – who people will remember from his days at Monarch – will talk about how Virgin is meeting commercial and sustainability challenges.

“It will be interesting to hear Ailsa Pollard, the new chief executive of dnata Travel Group in the UK and Europe from November, on how the market is developing, as dnata has an interesting spread of businesses with very different business models.

Business travel

“I’m very pleased Suzanne Horner, chief executive of Gray Dawes Travel and chair of the Business Travel Association, is joining us. Business travel has a different recovery profile from leisure. Some people are arguing we’ve all learnt to communicate on Zoom and Teams, so will we ever go back to flying? It will be interesting to hear how travel management companies are responding.

“Julia Simpson, new president and chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council, and Manuel Butler, who is running the Spanish Tourist Office in the UK, will be speaking, and we have Richard Carret, nominated vice-president for alliance development and communications at Star Alliance.”

Tanzer noted: “Not all the challenges we face are due to Covid, of course. The big issue is sustainability. How do we meet the commitments to zero carbon?

“Aviation is very much in the headlights on meeting those targets and has to take customers on a journey where they can fly without a guilty conscience.

“So there will be a lot of content from different parts of the sector.”

Demand remains

The aim of the convention, he said, is “to capture a vision for the future. How do you lead through a crisis such as Covid-19? How do you lead an organisation or an industry through huge change?

“I’m interested in the big picture, the vision of what can be done, but also personal stories of how people on the frontline reacted and led others through the pandemic.

“We want it to be positive and inspiring. There are a lot of challenges. Companies have had real problems just to come through this. But there is also a positive picture. The demand for travel isn’t going away.

“I hope we’ll be able to get that sense and rebuild the collegiate character of travel.

“This is a very hospitable and collaborative industry. Companies that compete and fight tooth and claw can also happily collaborate on challenges such as sustainability. It’s a mature industry in that way.

“I hope the convention marks a milestone for our sector in being able to come back together.”

Tanzer argued: “This has been a difficult period. It’s been a lonely time for people running businesses.

“If the convention helps people think ‘I’m not the only one who has had to face these challenges, there are others grappling with them and finding solutions and I can get support’, plus it can provide a vision of what travel can be in the future, that would be a result.

“Travel has to be different, not just in terms of its carbon footprint, but its impact on destinations.”


The Travel Convention

Theme: ‘Leading the Way: Envisaging and Inspiring in Extraordinary Times’
Date: Wednesday, October 13
Venue: East Winter Garden, Canary Wharf, London
Fees: Abta members/partners £295 in-person, £155 online; Non-members £395 in-person, £255 online
Register at: thetravelconvention.com

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