UK summer holidays will see a “slow start” according to UK short breaks operator Great Little Breaks, amid uncertainty around the lifting of the UK lockdown, but short lead times for domestic travel means there is still hope for a spike in last-minute bookings.
Great Little Breaks managing director Diana Evans joined a Travel Weekly Webcast about how to sell UK and Ireland holidays, along with Shirley Brooke, head of leisure sales for GP Associates, and Harold Burke, sales director for escorted tour operator Grand UK Holidays.
Evans said: “There is a trickle of bookings coming through for July and August but September, October and November certainly seem to be peak months for us at the moment, so fingers crossed.
“We recently ran a customer survey asking our customers what their perceptions and views were. We had a positive response in that over 60% of them wanted to take a break within three months of lockdown being lifted, but only 17% wanted to take that within a month of it being lifted.
“I still think there’s so much uncertainty over July and August because at the moment it’s a proposed date. It’s not been set in stone, we don’t know if things are going to change.
“From a leisure traveller’s perspective, when they’re going on a UK short break – from our customer experience – they want to know what they can visit in the area, what dining places are open, what kind of services are going to be at the hotel and I still think while there’s that little bit of uncertainty of what that looks like, it’s going to be a slow start to July and August.
“Traditionally, the UK’s short breaks market has seen a late lead-in time anyway for the summer, so all things being well and how those government restrictions are lifted in July, we might start to see a spike for very last-minute bookings for July and August.”
Evans added that the short breaks operator, which today announced plans to launch its agent portal in June, was working with hotel suppliers on how to enforce social distancing from July.
“I think it’s certainly going to be a phased approach,” she added, “And we’ll start to see some hotels leading the way and the others following.”
Brooke, who represents a number of independently owned, luxury hotels including Gleneagles in Scotland, Dormy House in the Cotswolds and The Merrion in Dublin, said hotels were currently shut but working towards reopening with social distancing measures in place.
She said: “They’re slightly frustrated because there’s a slight lack of guidance as to when they can open. There’s this date of the beginning of July but a lot of them have to change their whole proposition in terms of social distancing in the restaurants, what occupancy levels they can work to because there’s obviously a lot of cleaning and sanitation that has to take place, so there’s a lot of preparation to be able to open their doors. It’s not just a case of opening the doors and letting people in. It’s very different to what it was before.
“Obviously they’re all desperate to get going because of the local communities they support and the staff all need to get back to work, so there’s a huge appetite to get going, but it’s a case of when and how.”
Brooke said many hotels were already getting enquiries and there as “huge, pent-up energy” for domestic travel. She added: “A lot of people who would potentially take a villa in the south of France or Italy now want to go to the UK; they feel more comfortable with that.
“There are people who are too scared to go to an airport so they want to stay domestically – we’ve had a lot of enquiries for that – and then there are others who, the minute things open, want to get going. But from the hotels’ perspective it’s a bit more difficult because they have all these things to consider.”
Burke said the return to domestic travel would be slower for Grand UK Holidays’ predominantly over-55s market, with recovery not expected until at least November.
He said: “As soon as the announcement was made for lockdown, we cancelled all our tours till the end of June. We’ve already cancelled all our holidays until the end of July and we’re now moving on August, primarily because our customers are in the most vulnerable age category and for us, as an operator, we don’t think it would be responsible to try and encourage people to go away at this point in time.
“We’re currently hoping things may improve by September but our earliest expectation for this particular sector, the mature market and moving them by coach, is that it would be towards November.
“We’re very apprehensive at the moment but like every other business, we’re watching the situation day by day. We’re particularly watching what’s happening in Europe now because they’re a couple of weeks ahead of us so it will be interest to see how they fare.
“For us as a sector, we’ve got to look and see what happens overseas and what happens now some of the restrictions in the UK are starting to be limited and there’s a little bit more leeway on people getting out and about.
“Rather than The X Factor, we’re all watching the R factor, right around the globe.”