Trade battles to support customers amid restart complexities

Travel companies are being forced to adjust their approaches as they deal with “more than double” their pre-pandemic workloads against a backdrop of reduced workforces and more complex travel rules.

While welcoming the easing of restrictions including changes to the government’s red list and FCDO advice, industry leaders said the reopening of travel and supporting customers was like a “moving jigsaw”.

Gemma Antrobus, managing director of Haslemere Travel and chair of Aito Specialist Agents, told a Travel Weekly webcast it was important to be focused to offer the best service and maintain business.

“It’s a different world that we live in now,” she said. “There are some things that are slightly different and sometimes we do need to take a few deep breaths and be a little bit patient.”

Antrobus said her agency business was prepared for the “hard slog” ahead and explained how she held off contacting customers following last week’s red list reduction. “Service is absolutely paramount,” she said. “I cannot stretch myself too far.”

Kuoni chief executive Derek Jones said huge amounts of his team’s time were taken up with understanding and communicating changes to advice and restrictions, particularly in the period when traffic light lists and FCDO did not match.

He also said the operator had spent four days talking to lawyers about a customer waiver to allow travel to the Maldives before advice aligned.

Jones said Kuoni welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate its expertise and deliver for its customers, but said it was “easier to go into [the pandemic] than it is to come out of it”.

“We’ve still got some destinations that we’re cancelling on imminent departure,” he said. “So the net effect of all of this is that we’ve got more than double the workload. And we’ve got half the number of staff that we had at the start of this crisis.”

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Jones highlighted how 90 countries that Kuoni offers have “got their own rules about what you need to do to get into that destination”.

This issue has prompted Kuoni to set up a new team to liaise with customers travelling imminently to a country and talk through the travel regulations of that destination.

He said: “It’s a proper piece of work, we have to go through all the paperwork, all of the detail. So that’s an additional piece of work in an environment where we’ve cut staff…but we’ve got more to do.”

Brian Young, G Adventures’ managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said he was continually looking at business strategy as the government lifted restrictions.

He added: “That dichotomy of bringing certain roles back into business and then you have to balance that against customer-facing roles – that is the difficulty we have to balance up.

“There are no two ways about it, as everyone has said. Yes, we might have the tours up and running but there are still a million questions coming in irrespective of whether they can go or not.”

He went on to say that the situation in the travel industry was like a “big old moving jigsaw”.

“Even though we’ve been in this hibernation period, we have all been working our socks off,” he added. “This is the challenge that we’ve been praying for for 20 months. It’s hard work but great work at the same time.”

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