The complexities of travel amid the pandemic mean that the trade is focused more than ever on customer service to reassure people when they are making bookings.
That was the view of the bosses of summer-sun specialists Jet2holidays, Tui and easyJet holidays, who spoke on the same panel for the first time at Travel Weekly’s recent Future of Travel conference.
Andrew Flintham, managing director for the UK and northern Europe at Tui, said clients booking online in the past are calling contact centres for reassurance – and more customers are visiting retail stores, especially for near-term departures, because of the “complexity and uncertainty” of travel nowadays.
“How people are interacting with the high street is changing. It has re-emphasised the absolute power of that engagement when people are unsure,” he said. “Retail is doing significantly better than expected compared to online, as people need to talk.”
However, Flintham said it was too early to predict a permanent switch and said Tui does not plan to reopen any of stores it closed as a result of Covid, a total of more than 200.
He told delegates that most of Tui’s head office and retail staff were back from furlough, ahead of the scheme’s end on September 30.
“We have more people doing customer service than we’ve ever had; that’s almost been a boom area,” he said.
Steve Heapy, chief executive of Jet2holidays, said just “a couple of hundred” staff remained on furlough.
They will all return to work as normal at the end of September and there are no plans for job cuts, he said.
The average length of phone calls has doubled because of the pandemic, from seven to 14 minutes, so the company has more staff to answer the phones and help with issues such as Passenger Locator Forms.
He told delegates about Jet2holidays’ awards for customer service, thanks to its policies such as prompt refunds.
“The customer is king, or queen,” he added. “Customers will gravitate to the companies that treated them well [during the pandemic].”
Garry Wilson, easyJet holidays chief executive, said his company’s workforce was small “as a proportion of revenue” so the operator has not had to use the furlough scheme through the pandemic “in any great way”.
He also hailed the support of travel agents, who have been able to sell the operator’s holidays for the past year.
“We are really pleased with the relationship that we have built in short space of time in the year that we have been working with the trade,” he said.
“When we look at the amount the trade has supported us over the past 18 months, we won’t forget it…it has been really significant.”
Heapy warned, however, that travel agents have a “long, hard road to recovery”, saying the government must give sector-specific support to independent travel agencies.
“High streets have changed beyond recognition and never will be the same again. Lots of shops closed and there’s not an awful lot of reason to go to town centres,” he told the conference. “The government must provide sector support to reinvigorate town centres.”
He highlighted how some travel agents have changed models in a bid to become the “hub of the community”, by developing services such as cafes, libraries or bookshops.