Deben Travel uses emergency funding to pay client refunds

A travel agent is using emergency government funding for his business to pay back refunds in order to pacify and retain clients in the long term.

Deben Travel director Lee Hunt said he had no choice but to dip into money his business has successfully applied for from government to help clients who have not yet received refunds owed by tour operators but are in dire financial need due to the coronavirus crisis.

So far, Deben Travel, which also owns travel agency Cruise Ready, both of which are based in Woodbridge, Suffolk, has received a £10,000 small business grant from government. It has applied for £50,000 under the government’s latest Bounce Back Loans scheme, which went live on Monday (May 4).

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Hunt said: “I am going to have to take a gamble to make sure I keep my customers happy so when this is over they realise we looked after them and they come back to us.

“As a business I have taken the decision to pay these refunds and we will wait for the operators to refund us. If I don’t, my customers may not book with me again.”

Client refunds has been one of the biggest headaches so far for travel agents during the coronavirus crisis, with the government having not publicly endorsed Abta’s guidance of Refund Credit Notes.

Hunt, who has kept all nine of his staff on in order to deal with customer enquiries, rebookings, refunds and administration across his agencies, said he was constantly speaking to clients who desperately needed their money back.

He said: “I’ve had customers in tears, they literally need their money back now. We managed expectations from the start but some have been waiting eight weeks now. Some operators have said they will not pay out refunds until December and then we have customers who see tweets from other people who have received their money back [because they booked direct with operator].”

Hunt called on Abta to produce a firm date for tour operators to pay refunds back to customers, rather than having varying policies on refunds, with some pledging to pay back refunds this summer and others at the end of the year or even next year.

He added: “I want Abta to be firmer with operators and give them a deadline they need to refund our clients by.”

He also questioned why operators were refunding direct clients first, which is causing frustration among customers and piling yet more pressure on agents.

“I am not afraid of working hard but the mental stress of this is an issue,” he admitted. “Everyone who knows me would say I am a happy person and like a joke but I have quite literally been in tears over this in the last couple of  months. We have worked so hard to build up our business and now tour operators are making up guidelines loosely based on what Abta is saying.  I feel let down by the tour operators and by Abta.

“We are in a small market town and we rely on word of mouth and customers are now saying to us, apart from the advice, ‘what is the benefit of booking with an agent?’ If they’d booked direct they would have had their money back by now.

“It does make me think what is the point? If it wasn’t for my staff and customers I would have thrown in the towel.”

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