Der Touristik UK chief executive Derek Jones says industry must work collaboratively to save businesses and maintain trust
I started my travel career at Thomson when it was a privately owned family company. Later, without changing my job I found myself working for Preussag, and then TUI . I left I to join the Kuoni Group and again, without changing my job, I found myself working for the REWE Group.
Travel is like that – it’s a merry-go-round of constantly changing ownership and leadership – so it’s no surprise that many who work in the industry place a high importance on the camaraderie of the whole sector. It’s easier to be loyal to the travel industry first and your business second when you might just find yourself with a new owner at the drop of a hat.
Rivals and friends
That’s not to say we’re not competitive. You’d be hard pressed to find an industry of this scale with lower margins, so we battle it out constantly, everyone jostling for every sale. But then we put our glad rags on and meet up a conference or an awards night or a supplier event and we greet one another like the best of friends – because we are.
It’s this unique blend of competitive instinct and collective respect that I think has made our response to the coronavirus crisis so challenging and divisive.
Unprecedented and unforeseeable crisis
Once the scale and impact of Covid19 became apparent it was clear that the sort of public health response needed to control the spread of the disease was going to be catastrophic for the travel industry – for the sector as a whole, for the thousands of individual travel businesses, for the hundreds of thousands of employees of those businesses and for the millions of travellers with holidays already planned.
It was immediately clear that this was an unprecedented and wholly unforeseen turn of events; the suspension of global travel combined with the requirement under the Package Travel Regulations to refund all customers within 14 days. The industry was split on how to respond but something had to give. Either the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of colleagues were at risk or businesses would need some flexibility in the application of the regulations to survive. Neither option was particularly palatable, the first for obvious reasons, the second because almost every travel business I’ve ever dealt with recognises the trust and security that the Package Travel Regulations bring to the sector. Even leaving that aside, everyone also understood that millions of people, our customers, were being laid off work, being furloughed or losing their livelihoods completely. For them, the idea of not receiving a refund on their holiday would be unthinkable.
Successful businesses at risk
So this was risky territory from the start and was recognised as such. 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.
In most EU countries the governments quickly saw the problem and responded constructively and without controversy. In the most pro-active solutions they agreed to fund consumer refunds on behalf of travel companies with the money being paid back at a later date, recognising that if the businesses failed they would be paying out the money anyway with no hope of recovery.
Sadly, no such help materialised in the UK leaving Abta with a tightrope to walk. How to support its members through the most challenging period in its history whilst still maintaining the integrity of the consumer protection it had worked so hard over may decades to implement?
In the absence of government intervention a campaign began to persuade Ministers to take action, specifically to temporarily allow more than 14 days for refunds to be actioned. In the circumstances this was probably the lightest touch intervention that could have been called for. No change to the law, no long term damage the to the reputation of the industry and a small breathing space for travel business to mitigate the impact on their cash flow. Had this been successful it’s hard to believe that the vast majority of customers would not have been happy with the outcome. But it was not to be. So far the government has refused to intervene, nervous I’m sure of a consumer backlash.
Sadly, all of this activity 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.
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.
Ironically, the approach that we have taken at Kuoni has been to engage with individual customers, to build rapport and to understand that each individual is different. We’ve had NHS Doctors who’ve jumped at the chance to rebook, with no amendment fee, their Indian Ocean retreat for next year, glad of the opportunity to have something to look forward to. And we’ve had honeymooners devastated that they’ve both lost their jobs, that their wedding has been postponed and who have cried tears of joy to know that they will be refunded. My guess is that when the time is right, they will be back to book again.
With a compassionate approach we have managed to persuade the majority of our customers to rebook to a future date but there’s no doubt that it’s 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.
The businesses that are refusing refunds (and yes, there are some out there) are doing it in the misguided belief that it represents the only way to survive this crisis. They are scared that they will have to refund all of their customers when the reality is that most customers when treated with respect and honesty would be more than happy to transfer to a later date. There is still a way through this but it needs the new self-appointed consumer champions 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.
We’re all in this together
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.
So before we let rip on social media or rattle our sabres in online interviews, let’s all just pause for breath. We’re all in this together, we’ll all still be here when this is all over, and one way or another most of us I’m sure will still be working in this amazing industry.
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.