We need a united, positive front to save industry, says Responsible Travel‘s Tim Williamson

Save travel? Of course, we want that. The global pandemic has been devastating for our industry. But we’re hardly alone in that.

It doesn’t qualify us for special treatment or to be first in line for aid – although I appreciate that is a sentiment few in travel will share.

Admittedly, this is a level and duration of crisis we couldn’t foresee. And mistakes have been made by government, in the UK and globally. Quarantine measures have been a blunt-tool blunder from the get-go.

It’s right to speak out on that while remembering the government focus is public health and not getting people travelling as quickly and widely as possible.

We also have to take a measure of responsibility. It’s going to be a tough winter for travel companies and sadly some won’t survive. But we need to look hard at ourselves and not deflect this painful analysis entirely on to government.

To survive in the long run we have to be honest and we have to learn. And let’s be honest, some of our woes are down to business decisions, not government inaction.

Who broke consumer trust?

Government didn’t shatter customer confidence and tarnish the reputation of the whole sector in the spring. Refusing and delaying refunds did.

This was largely the result of companies further up the supply chain, most notably airlines, not refunding. But we cannot really blame the government for this – although it would be good to see the Civil Aviation Authority given more powers to make airlines more-customer focused.

Many of our friends in travel have been poorly treated by other travel companies.

Spending money paid by customers for a future experience came back to bite the industry. Sadly, few companies had set aside this money to refund customers if needed.

The best did and also made it easy for customers to contact and engage with them and, as a result, persuaded many to defer their holiday plans until a later date.

Many have said they didn’t have the cash to refund customers and survive the winter. Yet only a little over one third of travel companies have taken up the government-backed CBIL loan scheme, according to a recent Summit Advisory survey.

This is surprising as the loan terms are generous and accessible and you are able to apply for more than one.

If the limited take-up is down to company balance sheets being too weak to qualify, it begs the question as to whether these companies would have survived the winter anyway.

A unified front

Ultimately, travel’s real problem is our inability to truly speak with one voice, and a positive one at that.

The pandemic has made clear we need a genuine, not-for-profit, cross-industry taskforce to better the industry: from airlines and airports to tour operators, rail and inbound.

And it has to work with government to be taken seriously. Abta should not be surprised at what transport secretary Grant Shapps says at its convention. It should have been working hand-in-hand with his department throughout this pandemic.

I love travel. There are so many amazing businesses in the sector. But we’re not a special case in this global crisis. Others have been as badly hit or worse. We won’t save our industry with unrealistic demands.

Petitioning for special treatment while moaning we’re being victimised isn’t a sound strategy for success, nor is asking for a tax like APD to be reduced or removed when price is hardly the barrier to people travelling right now.

I’ve rarely seen our industry so united as it has been in its campaign for aid. I hope, from all of this, we reflect on our approach to the pandemic, better understand how we’re viewed and why, and learn to speak as one.

Hopefully, we can form our own taskforce that positively represents our industry to build a good relationship with government.

Tim Williamson is a director of Responsible Travel