The Conservative MP for the Kent constituency of Tonbridge & Malling, Tom Tugendhat, has promised to raise the desperate situation faced by businesses in travel with chancellor Rishi Sunak in a meeting on Monday.
Tugendhat invited constituents Nick Marks, joint managing director of Baldwins Travel; Jayne Peirce, owner of Jayne Peirce Travel Recruitment and Lucy Huxley, editor-in-chief of Travel Weekly, to a meeting on Friday afternoon.
Due to the national lockdown in England, the meeting took place virtually, but Tugendhat spent 30 minutes listening to the plight of agents, operators and other businesses dependent on the travel industry.
Marks, who operates eight travel agency branches across Kent and East Sussex, said: “From a travel agent’s point of view, we have refunded over £5 million worth of holidays since March with no income whatsoever.
“Everything that we have earned last year and the year before has evaporated from our bank account.”
Travel corridors removed
Commenting on countries being granted travel corridors which are then quickly removed, he said: “We try and do a booking; we confirm it, then the next day it’s cancelled and we have to refund the money.
“We’re all refunding everything we have earned plus more. We’re paying for our staff to be there, to service our customers, but we are earning nothing.”
Marks said he had already had to make 20 staff redundant, something he described as “devastating”.
“Some of them have been with our company for 20 or 30 years. My father, our chairman, has been in travel for 57 years. This isn’t just heart-breaking for him and for our family, but for all the families of the people we employ,” he said.
Time running out
Explaining time was rapidly running out for travel companies, Marks added: “There’s now a very short amount of time left before you see big swathes of travel agents and tour operators going bust.
“Research done by the consortium Baldwins is part of found that 61% of agents said they won’t be around as of February because they will simply run out of money. We need some help from government.
“Hospitality was helped and yet in some ways, they have been able to trade. We haven’t. It has cost my business over £1 million. We’re between a rock and a hard place and the future can only go on for so long. I’m not just speaking on behalf of Baldwins but for the whole travel agency sector.”
Peirce added that her business, which specialises in travel recruitment, had also been hit hard.
“I’ve just generated my first invoice since March. We need to trade our way out of this but we can’t. We want a plan and a path from a government point of view. Quarantine has really hindered our industry. We have to keep staff employed to amend bookings and pay refunds. I can’t think of another industry that is affected in the way that we are.”
Tugendhat listened to the concerns and said: “You’ve been very ignored. There are a lot of people focused on airlines and hotels and not the enablers like yourselves. I’d be very interested to know how I can help.
“The problem is that we just don’t know when travel is going to start again, but we need to find a way of supporting your industry with an unlimited end. That’s quite difficult but clearly, the only way to maintain profits is keeping business going. You’ve obviously already taken advantage of furlough, and CBILS and grants, but this needs to be something different.”
Furlough for working staff
He added: “I am very happy to write to the chancellor about this and see what he can bring together. Perhaps a furlough [scheme] for working staff would be sensible as I can see what you’re saying about not earning, yet you still need your workforce.
“I can see that the alternative is that you go bust so it’s absolutely worth making that point.”
Tugendhat said: “I can see this is not your fault and that you ran highly cash-generative businesses until February. I can see that it must be like hitting the brakes on the motorway at 70mph.
“I am not going to promise things I can’t deliver, and I am not going to lie to you, but I am seeing the chancellor on Monday and will raise it with him and I will also write to him formally. I will also write to the health secretary and the transport secretary – all three.”
Tugendhat said the challenge was convincing the Treasury that travel businesses were viable, something that wasn’t helped by a number of things.
“We just don’t know when things are going to be back to normal. Australia has banned international travel until 2022. I hope they are just being massively cautious but that’s what they are saying currently.
“There may be a vaccine, but the first iteration of it probably won’t work very well. The second iteration might be better, or it might not.
“And then there’s this new strain of coronavirus – this mutated version – that’s now in Denmark, so we have to watch that,” he said.
“But I am hoping the world will open again by next summer. If we could just open up Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and France, that would be something.”