US decision allows trade to focus on sales rather than ‘drudgery of refunds’

US specialists anticipate a busy selling period in the coming weeks as holiday enquiries from consumers are converted to sales – while the number of refunds and cancellations will diminish.

Speaking on a Travel Weekly webcast, the bosses of, Ocean Holidays Group and Virgin Atlantic said they reacted with surprise and emotion when they heard the announcement on Monday (September 20) that the US borders will open again to UK arrivals from November.

Olly Brendon, founder and chief executive of, said the office had been a “stressful place” during the past 18 months as the supplier has dealt with so many ticket returns while the US was off limits.

He told the webcast he had been “overwhelmed” when he heard the news because the US is so important to the business.

“We sell over half a million attraction tickets a year to the US. Without that cash cow, the business has been struggling for a long, long time,” he said.

“Refunds are just exhausting and they put enormous pressure on the business.”

He said many customers had been “losing the will” to amend bookings for the “third, fourth, fifth sixth time” and the rate of cancellations had been rising.

He expects a “consistent surge of demand” so needs to recruit staff so the supplier can be “focused on sales rather than the drudgery of refunds and cancellations”.

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Following the announcement from the US, he expects customers will move their bookings for the period to the end of October 2021 to the same period next year, then the company can go to “full sales mode” and “full growth mode”.

Brendon was pleased that the company had looked after clients throughout the pandemic, as it gave him confidence that the business now has “a really good chance of bouncing back strongly”.

And he paid tribute to the staff, saying: “Our people have stuck by us through this when there have been jobs out there, especially more recently, if you go and work for Waitrose delivering groceries and earn more money, but they stuck with us.”

Furthermore, he said the trade is “very, very important to us” and the company has recently signed up new agents and renewed deals with partners such as Barrhead Travel and Midcounties.

Harry Hastings, co-chief executive and co-founder of the Ocean Holidays Group, said he did a “strange scream” in the office when he heard the news and then “crisis adrenaline kicked in”.

“My body, my mind couldn’t quite work out that this was a good one, not a bad one, because we’ve always such difficulties over the last 18 months,” he said.

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in enquiries straightaway.”

He said customers for the Florida specialist have typically booked 11 months or more ahead of travel so they were willing to change dates when the company was communicating with them.

“We have spent a hell of a lot of time on sales and marketing and generating as many enquiries as possible and getting those bookings in and getting people committed for dates that we deemed were reasonable,” he said.

For refunds and amendments, the firm had a separate team, called the switch team, which focused on retaining as many customers as possible throughout the pandemic.

“I’m sure many tour operators have seen this amazing agility of people…whether it’s sales agents, operations staff, or people from across the business, to dive into different roles, and take on responsibilities and speak to customers and perform in ways that wouldn’t have been expected of them in the past.”

He anticipates the quotes being made over the coming days and weeks will be converted into bookings.

Lee Haslett, global sales vice-president with Virgin Atlantic, said the “exciting news” about the borders was a “welcome surprise” but “very much overdue”.

“We’re delighted. The office is packed today. The numbers have been phenomenal since the announcement,” he told the webcast.

As well as planning to resume popular services to American holiday destinations, the airline is able to kick-start its activities with the trade to boost agents’ US bookings.

“Once we see people travel, we then tend to see more demand come through. Hopefully that will build well to what will be a strong end-of-year traditional winter selling period,” he said.

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