Arena Travel’s Steve Goodenough says tours can go ahead as long as they’re ‘back to basics’

I was en route to Norfolk to join our first UK rail break since lockdown restrictions were imposed in March, when I stopped to absorb the news that the latest government restrictions would limit group gatherings in England to just six, from September 14.

Initially this felt like yet another huge set back and threat to the UK travel industry. As with most operators, our team have been working tirelessly since March, with reduced numbers, dealing with the rolling waves of postponements, requests for transfers and refunds.

In June we brought back more of our team to prepare for when Covid-secure trips could go ahead, particularly focussing on extending the portfolio of UK trips in response to uncertainty around visiting overseas destinations. We had spent months putting all our energy into strict adherence to the regulations, with the safety of our customers our primary concern.

A glimmer of hope had started to appear in August when we made our first tentative steps to operating some small group tours – albeit with social distancing in place and mask-wearing the norm. We have since operated some cruises on the Thames, an art history tour to Germany and a gardens of Dorset tour, and have another half dozen due to depart over the coming month. Would the latest news mean these couldn’t go ahead?

Immediately we started to consult with travel industry colleagues and collectively concluded that in the absence of a specific government directive relating to the operation of tours in England, it made sense for our Covid-safe trips to continue as planned wherever possible.

To reach this conclusion, we had to go back to basics and unpick every element that makes up a tour – accommodation, dining arrangements, transport, and access to attractions – to determine its compliance with current rules and regulations.

Most customers booking our UK tours are mature couples and solo travellers, who make their own way to a hotel base to begin each trip and who can maintain an appropriate distance from others throughout the tour.

Every hotel we use is operating under strict new health and safety measures, with social distancing in public areas and appropriately spaced tables in restaurants. Every attraction we visit and every historic rail journey or cruise we take has social distancing measures in place and requires mask-wearing in enclosed spaces. Our coaches are Covid-secure, operating at reduced capacity to allow for appropriate space between passengers. We had discussions with Abta too, who concurred with our interpretation that the trips would be able to operate as planned.

Those of us involved in UK touring have, for the time being, been able to breathe a sigh of relief that the latest tightening of rules may not have the devastating impact we first feared.

However, we must also appreciate that regardless of whether we are legally able to operate, a key factor is whether our customers wish, and feel safe, to travel.

In these strange and worrying times, we are all too aware that things could change yet again at a moment’s notice. Among many there is a sense of trepidation about booking travel to any destination near or far, for fear of becoming entangled in last-minute changes to restrictions.

The government needs to pay urgent attention to the travel industry. Businesses have had minimal income since March, out-flows of cash in refunds and overheads, and now face the likely prospect of greatly reduced travel until well into the New Year.

The travel industry has been providing an essential service, initially repatriating, then supporting cancellations and transfers all at no commercial benefit. We now need support to keep long-established, previously profitable, and successful businesses sustainable.

Rishi and Boris, please listen! We urgently need an extension to furlough support and a clearer roadmap to support the return of the travel industry.