Agents have been working from home, behind closed doors and looking after loved ones as the country faces the pandemic. Juliet Dennis, Harry Kemble and Ben Ireland report.
Last month, Sarah and Richard Pratt, former customer service manager and destination manager for Thomas Cook overseas respectively, set up their own ‘mobile’ online agency that they run while house-sitting and looking after people’s pets. They had hoped to turn their lives around after being made redundant last September.
“We wanted to stay in travel so we set up Move Travel and had booked up house‑sitting jobs for the next 12 months to work from.
“Before that, we spent 18 years working for Thomas Cook overseas in resort together.
“It’s not even six months since Thomas Cook went under and we lost our jobs.
“Now we have a travel business but no one is booking holidays.
“We still have most of our house-sits booked but the next two we had lined up have cancelled due to the owners not travelling because of the coronavirus. Now we’re staying at my sister-in-law’s.
“It’s unclear how long this will go on for, but we’re not as worried about the long-term as I’m sure everyone will go back to travelling.
“It’s just crazy that we were made redundant and then chose two jobs that have both been badly affected by the coronavirus.”
Caerphilly-based Not Just Travel homeworker Emma Summerill is balancing her job with looking after her husband, who has been struck down with coronavirus, and her six-year-old daughter, who has a serious heart condition.
“My husband works for the ambulance service and he was struck down with coronavirus. We’re on 14 days’ isolation and I am waiting to get it. You see your future ahead of you.
“We’re still sharing a bed and a bathroom – it is coming my way. Once it is here, what can you do about it?
“Not Just Travel homeworker Emma Summerill is balancing her job with looking after her husband, who has been struck down with coronavirus.”
“He said it felt like he was breathing in sandpaper. He is feeling better but was rather unwell for a few days. It is a bit of an unknown with my daughter. If she is going to get it now at least it will be when the hospitals are not swamped.
“I’m working all hours to rebook customers and cancel existing bookings, and trying to do a lot of my work in the morning. There are less bookings coming in and we’re also losing bookings to cancellations.
“We don’t know how it’s going to end. I don’t have any customers abroad, thank goodness.”
Staff at Tailor Made Travel branches are working from behind closed doors. Alex Williams and Vanessa Young have been locked in their Whitchurch branch.
“It’s a strange feeling at the moment. We kind of feel like lab rats working away behind glass. There are only two of us in our shop and Vanessa and I are more than happy.
“Our clients are calling us and are all very positive and supportive of what we are doing. We were concerned this was going to create alarm, but it’s had the opposite effect and they’re glad we’re listening to the government’s advice.
“We have had some enquiries for new bookings too, and are working on a group departure to Sweden for 2022.”
“Bookings-wise we’ve had a handful of cancellations but on the whole we’ve transferred bookings to later dates. We have had some enquiries for new bookings too, and are working on a group departure to Sweden for 2022.
“Customers are obviously concerned and asking for our opinion and we are trying to reassure them as best we can.
“We have many clients who are currently on cruise ships and we are in constant contact with them, and they’re grateful for our updates.
“We have an amazing team behind us and we know we will battle on and come out of this stronger than ever.”
Shevaun Joy, a partner at West Yorkshire-based agency Destination, has been providing food packages for older clients arriving back to the UK on repatriation flights from Europe amid the coronavirus crisis.
“I can’t take credit for it, it was my business partner Lisa’s idea. We were conscious that there’s been a lot of things in the media about panic buying.
“We just thought for these older clients, who potentially have to come straight back from their holiday and self-isolate, it would be a nice touch. So we decided to pick up bread and milk while we were out and about, stick it in a carrier bag and leave it on their doorstep.
“Shevaun Joy has been providing food packages for older clients arriving back to the UK on repatriation flights from Europe.”
“One of our clients rang us straight away and said thank you and asked where we’d got it all from because the shops haven’t got anything in. They were just so grateful.
“I think through this really rough storm that we’re having, those who have looked after others are going to be front of mind when people start rebooking.”
Cruise Circle product development manager Mark Godden, who has long worked from home, has been helping the rest of the team prepare to start doing the same.
“I feel sorry for our customers – some are taking it better than others. It’s hard to get the information after someone sees something on social media. There are rumours that a certain ship is not going to a certain port, for example.
“We have passengers on Holland America Line’s Zaandam, which was waiting outside Puerto Arenas in Chile but I imagine it will go on to the US [it subsequently rerouted for Florida]. We are doing what we can to get people home. I cannot say how proud I am of the business and the team – talk about stepping up to the plate.
“We are doing what we can to get people home. I cannot say how proud I am of the business and the team – talk about stepping up to the plate.”
“There are staff in the office but that will change soon. We are going to do FaceTime calls with colleagues, and use Skype and WhatsApp.
“On one day, I started at five in the morning and finished at about 11pm. You can’t carry on at that rate – you need to look after yourself.
“I’m trying to walk around the garden and have a coffee outside every day.”
Ashley Quint, travel consultant at TravelTime World, is working from home instead of in his agency’s office in Berkhamsted following the government’s advice.
“Just over two weeks ago, we moved from our shop to an office and updated our technology.
“One of the benefits is that it has enabled me to work from home. If we were still at the shop our phone system would not have let us do what we’re doing now.
“At least now we can work flexibly and take calls earlier or later in the day. Operators are working later as well.”
“I work in a spare room in my house,which I share with my mum. She’s not been well so being here means I can help her or do the shopping.
“I am trying to structure my day and take a break to go for a walk. You just need to think about how to live day-to-day.
“In the past when there has been a crisis you’ve felt you’ve had to go into the office. At least now we can work flexibly and take calls earlier or later in the day. Operators are working later as well.
“This situation is certainly forcing us to have a different ‘vision’ in terms of how we do things.
“Most of what I’m doing is speaking to clients over the phone or on email.
“The biggest challenge has been getting people home and trying to rebook holidays.”
Deben Travel is open, but staff are making sure there is ‘plenty of distance’ between them and customers, explains Rebecca Leete, who has worked at the branch in Woodbridge, Suffolk, on and off for six years.
“It was scary, especially last Saturday when everything was changing every half an hour. We have to take it seriously. Customers are not sitting right in front of us – especially if they are elderly. And we’re social distancing as a team, making sure only one of us at a time uses the back of the shop where we have lunch or make a cup of tea. We have fun, make jokes and play music – the mood is good. There are normally about four of us in the office.
“We had one guy whose Jet2 flight to Fuerteventura had to turn around when the plane was over France. It landed at Stansted and he went home.”
“We had one guy whose Jet2 flight to Fuerteventura had to turn around when the plane was over France. It landed at Stansted and he went home. He said it was the quickest holiday he’d ever had. When it comes to refunds, we’re trying to manage customer expectations. It could be months. It’s hard. A lot of people want to travel but it is difficult to know how long [the pandemic] is going to last.”