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Interview: Gold Medal peaks plans unaffected by new restrictions

Trade only operator reports strong demand, longer durations and higher-value bookings as peaks approaches. Samantha Mayling speaks to sales director Nick Hughes and marketing director Kerry Gallagher.

Gold Medal says its plans for the peak selling season have not been affected by the new curbs on travellers that came into force on Tuesday (November 30).

The government announced on Saturday that it will bring back the requirement for PCR tests for arrivals to tackle the potential threat of a new Covid variant called Omicron.

Ten African countries have been added to the red list because the variant was identified in South Africa.

Kerry Gallagher (pictured), marketing director for the trade-only tour operator, said: “The announcements at the weekend have underscored the fragility of consumer confidence and we’ve had some agents contacting us with customers who are now uncertain about what it all means.

“But we’ve been here to support agents throughout and will continue to help them navigate these latest changes.

“Consumers are becoming aware that travel will be subject to change for the foreseeable future and our flexible booking policy remains in place to accommodate that.

“The destinations currently affected by restrictions are only a small part of our overall business and while we’re monitoring the situation carefully our plans for peaks aren’t impacted.”

The addition of southern Africa countries to the UK’s red list is not likely to have a major impact on the operator because Africa accounts for 2.5% of its business.

“Planning, agility and flexibility is key. We can spend weeks working on something then get a curve ball. Being able to pivot is critical,” said Gallagher.

“Our flexible booking policies offer trust, security and flexibility for customers and agents.”

The changes to travel rules came as Gold Medal was preparing to unveil its plans for the peaks, including the chance for agents to join a fam trip to Dubai next March.

Market trends

Speaking last week, Nick Hughes, sales director at Gold Medal parent dnata B2B Europe, said Gold Medal’s Pure Luxury and Cruise Plus were performing “really well”.

During the previous week of trading, Gold Medal’s upmarket Pure Luxury brand accounted for 17% of business, “which is greater than normal”, he added.

“We are seeing longer durations, better hotels and high ASVs (average selling values),” he commented.

“We sell every corner of the world; there are opportunities for all agents whatever they sell.”

He recalled comments by Nicki Tempest-Mitchell, sales and marketing director at Barrhead Travel, who told the recent Abta travel trends conference that the agency’s ASV was up 20%.

“That’s what we are seeing. Demand has been pent-up for too long,” he added.

“The Maldives and US are doing very well and there are pockets of opportunity for Easter and summer.

“North America accounted for 40% of bookings last week. For places such as Orlando and Las Vegas, Gold Medal is the largest B2B operator for these destinations.”

He said the operator has been seeing a mix of late departures, plus some bookings for 2023 and even 2024 – but about 85% of its business is for 2022.

However, he did warn that demand for accommodation could outweigh supply, particularly over Christmas and New Year for popular destinations such as Dubai and the Maldives.

Sales for the past 12 weeks were 51% up year-on-year, and over the past four weeks that had risen to 67% up year-on-year.

Reasons for the accelerated growth included the easing of restrictions and the fact that agents and consumers are “more comfortable with testing and processes”.

“Demand is not quite at pre-pandemic levels, it is about 50% of pre-pandemic levels – but it is about where we would expect to be,” he added.

“But we are outperforming Gold Medal forecasts and there is still more to go for.”

Consumer confidence

Gallagher said the ‘mini peaks’ campaign that Gold Medal ran in September happened as restrictions were being eased.

“Having everything there, all ready, definitely helped,” she said.

“September and October were good and then November, with the US borders opening up, was really lovely to see.

“It was like a tap being turned on, all that pent-up demand coming to fruition.”

She said Gold Medal, Pure Luxury and Cruise Plus have not seen any nervousness about economic headwinds because of the strength of the pent-up demand.

“People are desperate to travel – they are going for longer durations and booking room upgrades,” she said.

“People have had a tough 18 months; they still want to travel.”

Support for agents

Gold Medal is currently recruiting staff for its call centre to help cope with the demand.

Gallagher said Gold Medal calls are answered on average within three minutes, and within two minutes for Pure Luxury.

The operator’s team of nine trading partnership managers is back on the road visiting agents in shops.

“We have seen a resurgence of retail over the past few months but it is sketchy,” said Hughes.

“Some retail businesses are up and running at pre-pandemic levels but others are on skeleton staff.

“We have had a ‘suck it and see’ approach – we have had some shop visits but some agents do not want suppliers in shops as they are by appointment only.

“But some agents have welcomed us with open arms; they want that human touch and interaction.”

The operator took part in the Black Friday sales last week, although Gallagher commented: “We like to think every day, every week, our offers are unbeatable.

“Most weeks, most months we have exclusive offers because of our buying power.”

She said agents and holidaymakers are becoming more accustomed to the bureaucracy of Covid-19 travel rules.

The Gold Medal online guide to Covid restrictions is updated daily and regularly consulted by agents.

“I have travelled quite a bit. When you first do it, it is daunting with the forms and QR codes, but once you have done it, it’s not so bad,” she added.

“Customers, agents and us – we are settling into a new routine and more confident.”

Sustainability initiatives

Another area the company is working on is sustainability, with a working party in the UK, guided by the blueprint from parent company dnata.

Gallagher said the brochure print run has been cut by 70%.

The brochures are carbon-balanced and next year they should be carbon-positive.

“It’s even down to ordinary merchandise – the pens and notepads that agents love – we have no single-use plastic and use sustainable, responsibly sourced materials,” she said.

Hughes said the company now has its first electric vehicle for the sales team, while the others are hybrid cars.

“We can make a huge difference on what we impact – small areas such as removing plastic cutlery at Lancaster House [head office] in Leyland, no plastic containers, no polystyrene or plastic cups,” he added.

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