Refund vouchers being issued to customers who have lost their holidays must offer as concrete customer protection as fully bonded Atol holidays.
Speaking in a special Travel Weekly webcast on the developing coronavirus crisis, leading travel agent Miles Morgan said agents cannot recommend anything less to their clients.
The issue of offering refunds or credit notes has been hugely controversial since airlines and operators were forced to cancel departures and holidays as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK.
Morgan, owner of Miles Morgan Travel, said agents were getting a kicking from everyone and find themselves on the front line with customers anxious not to lose their money or holiday.
He said: “The absolute thing that’s got to be certain is that in this scenario the customer’s money is protected as it is when they book an Atol bonded holiday.
“As soon as we moved to vouchers that issue becomes a little more grey and therefore the proposal that Abta put linking that voucher to the previous booking is absolutely crucial because as a business we can’t recommend taking something we think in any way might not be fulfilled.
“In essence those things are just gift vouchers and in the event the company failed the customer would just become a creditor. We can’t be in that situation.
“It’s crucial it’s secured so everybody knows when they are recommending those vouchers they are absolutely caste iron, as concrete, as if someone’s bought an Atol bonded holiday.”
Morgan praised agent-friendly operators like Jet2Holidays, which quickly moved to agree a voucher scheme for its forward booked customers, and Celebrity Cruises, both of which joined the webcast.
Although he said not all partners had been so supportive, Morgan said: “What Jet2 has done has to be applauded. It was fantastic, totally supporting the travel agent, which was wonderful to see.
“So many other suppliers are doing the same thing, like Celebrity. They probably don’t realise just how much difference that makes to a travel agent. It is phenomenal the difference that makes.”
Alan Cross, head of trade sales at Jet2Holidays, said its lawyers worked closely with Abta and the CAA on the wording of the vouchers ahead of a hoped for change in the Atol regulations.
He said in normal times its proportion of agency business stands at 30%, but in the last two weeks it has been 60% as agents work hard with their customers to retain bookings.
Cross said he had one agent phone him in tears after the firm launched its vouchers saying the operator had saved her business.
“Agents are doing a fantastic job at saving those customers and satisfying them that they want them back and they want their holiday. Agents were delighted when we introduced the rebook vouchers,” Cross said.
Jo Rzymowska, vice president and managing director of Celebrity Cruises, praised Abta for its stance on changes to the Atol regulations and urged agents to download and send its letter to their MPs.
“This is a massive, massive financial blow for every organisation, but we need to do everything we can to persuade the consumers just postpone, don’t cancel.
“We will make sure your holiday is there when you want it. This is why working together on this credit refund the best we can is a good thing for us to do as an industry.
“We need to applaud the Abta team because they really are pushing this as much as they can.”
Morgan, Rzymowska and Cross agreed pent up demand means the industry needs to be ready for a bounce back although it is impossible to say when it might come.
Jet2 is preparing Back With A Bang campaign and Cross encouraged agents to make sure they are prepared and have up to date product knowledge for when bookings come back.
Morgan said: “The industry is going to go through a very hard 2020 and airlines and operators are going to have to try to recoup some of that money.
“For me that means prices for 2021 will probably be substantially higher than normal and so what better message for customers to say actually securing something now for 2021 is a smart move.
“When we get out of this demand will be phenomenal. The great British pubic will want to go on holiday. The long-term future is strong and will remain strong.”
Rzymowska added: “We are not quite sure yet when this will end, and we need to be honest about that. No one can say here is an end date.
“We need to be in this, hopefully for the short haul, but maybe the medium haul or the long haul, and we need to prepare in the best way.
“Through this we will find a new norm; new ways of working that will be more efficient and new ways of communicating with our customers and ways in which we work together.
“Let’s find that so when we come out of this we don’t go back to some of those old ways we come forward to new ways which will be far more efficient all round.”