Der Touristik UK chief executive Derek Jones has called on the travel industry to work collaboratively to overcome the challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak and avoid “divisive” disputes around holiday refunds.
In a lengthy post on LinkedIn noting the industry’s “unique blend of competitive instinct and collective respect”, the Kuoni boss said he had been saddened by the conflict caused by the debate around refunds and insisted “we’re all better than this”.
Abta and other trade bodies have so far been unsuccessful in calling for government intervention to assist the industry, including temporary changes to the Package Travel Regulations to allow the protected deferral of refunds.
Meanwhile, campaigners including VIVID Travel owner Kane Pirie have criticised firms which are failing to offer refunds and said changes to regulations will erode consumer confidence in the sector.
Jones said the lack of government intervention had left Abta with a “tightrope to walk”, saying: “Nobody wanted to change the law, nobody wanted to reduce consumer protection but neither did people want to see brilliant brands and successful businesses destroyed as collateral damage in a war against a disease.”
He argued that campaigners had caused an unnecessary backlash and were focusing on a right to refunds that “already exists and is not under any threat of permanent removal”.
He said: “Sadly, all of this activity [Abta’s calls to government] sparked the interest of a few people who saw the opportunity to position themselves as the consumer champions, enthusiastically campaigning for the return of something that to this point has not been removed – the right to a refund.
“Despite the petitions, the hashtags and the pledges of support, the fact remains that their campaign is campaigning for something that already exists and is not under any threat of permanent removal.”
He added: “Instead of reassuring customers that the industry is working hard to protect their money in the most challenging of circumstances, the campaign has caused a backlash, encouraging customers who would otherwise have been happy to rebook their holiday for a later date to demand a refund now. Many agents and tour operators now find themselves on the wrong side of conversations with angry and upset customers despite genuinely trying to do the right thing for them.”
Jones said Kuoni had adhered to the requirements of the PTRs throughout, and said that a “compassionate approach” had led the majority of customers to rebook. However, he said conversations had been getting tougher as customers “begin to believe the new narrative and to demand a refund just because they’ve been cajoled into believing it’s their best option”.
Jones admitted that some companies had been refusing refunds in the “misguided belief that it represents the only way to survive the crisis”, but insisted most customers would be happy to transfer bookings if treated with “respect and honesty”.
He called on campaigners to “soften their rhetoric and to explain why a refund should of course be an option, whilst also pointing out that it’s not always necessarily the best one”.
He concluded: “As the leader of a business that has adhered to the requirements of the Package Travel Regulations throughout it would be easy for me to jump on the consumer hero bandwagon but there’s more at stake here than just the success of the business I’m employed to run, important though that is.
“I work in the travel sector – I’m part of a bigger community. The jobs and livelihoods of the people I have worked alongside for the last 30 years, the hundreds of small travel agencies, the specialist tour operators – all of them now petrified that they could lose it all in the blink of an eye. They matter to me too – just as much. It hurts me to see the conflict that this debate has caused – we’re all better than this.
“We can all get back to competing with each other soon enough but for now, let’s focus on finding the right balance. Let’s care for our customers and our colleagues. Choosing between one and the other is like choosing your favourite child!
“Now, more than ever, we need to work together collaboratively to find the right solutions.”
Read Derek Jones’ comment in full.