Comment: Treatment of travel agencies is nonsensical

Dear Boris,

I’ve been meaning to write to you for a while but to be honest things have been a bit hectic round here since this whole Coronavirus thing kicked off.

Let me tell you about me. I’m very lucky to run a group of travel businesses; six specialist tour operators and a national chain of travel agents. It’s a brilliant job, I love it, but right now every day is like being the Mayor of Amity on the morning after the first Jaws attack. The livelihoods and well-being of thousands of people rely on our ability to send customers on holiday but the risks are just too high. For now, the beach has had to remain closed.

That’s cool, we get it. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing. And we have. When you told us that all overseas travel was off, we spent two weeks bringing all of our stranded customers home. Then we spent six months cancelling and refunding (or rebooking) almost every customer due to travel with us this year. And we’ve done all of this without generating any income from new bookings. After all, who’s going to plan a trip to the beach when there’s a great white lurking in the ocean.

Back in the heady days of July and August we actually thought that the shark might have left the bay and a few hardy customers returned to paddle in the shallower waters. But the red flags were soon flying again and any hopes of a recovery faded away.

So why write to you now?

Well, throughout all of this we have been patiently waiting for you and your team (let’s think of you as the Amity Town Council) to come up with something that will help us to pull through. After all, this is a viable business sector. One that was thriving before that pesky shark arrived and one that will no doubt thrive again in the future.

I know you’ll point to your furlough schemes and claim (with some justification) that you’ve supported many businesses over the last nine months. But as I’ve already said, we didn’t have the luxury of closing down and putting everyone into furlough. We had work to do – lots of it – taking care of our customers in the best possible way we could.

Patiently, we’ve worked with the ever-changing quarantine requirements, travel corridor advice and FCDO restrictions. Thursday afternoons have become a lottery as your side-kick, Mr Shapps, has closed down countries (tweet by tweet) with little more than a day’s notice. But still we’ve persevered, reducing our costs and clinging on to the safety bars of the corona-coaster hoping that we can make it to the end of the ride. And now, with lock-down necessary once again, our stores are closed and yet more bookings need to be cancelled.

Which brings me to the main point of this letter.

At the start of lock-down #2 you published a list of high street businesses, forced to close as a result of the lock-down, which would be eligible for a local authority grant for each month of closure. We were delighted to see that travel agents were on the list. Finally some recognition that travel businesses on the high street were suffering alongside other retailers.

But then a strange thing happened; the list was amended. Suddenly and without warning, travel agents were removed from the list. Apparently (and this is where your lack of understanding of the sector is laid bare for all too see), you have ‘not closed travel agents by law as they can continue to operate remotely and it may be necessary for people to go to the office where they cannot work from home’.

It’s worth taking a step back to summarise just how nonsensical your approach to travel has been throughout this crisis.

When you stopped people from travelling and created a mountain of work for travel agents, you introduced a scheme which paid them not to work. When you introduced the weekly drawing of straws to determine which bookings needed to be cancelled next you created another mountain of work for travel agents, whilst still paying them not to work.

And now, your pièce de résistance, you’ve shut down all overseas travel and closed all non-essential retail as part of a national lock-down and excluded travel agents from support because they can work from home! It doesn’t take much imagination to see that travel agents are dependent on footfall for a significant part of their trade. The impact on their trade is identical, or worse, than many of those businesses who have been named as eligible. Florists can operate a click and collect services, an option that is simply not open to travel agents.

The bulk of work being done from home by travel agents, the very work that excludes them from any opportunity to furlough, is not revenue generative. It’s dealing with the effect of the lock-down on the travel plans of existing customers. Much of this will in fact, result in cancellations and refunds, which will pile yet more pressure onto already struggling businesses.

Yes, travel agents can operate remotely – they have no choice but to operate remotely – but to penalise them for doing so when they have not only lost the ability to generate new revenue but are also refunding existing customers is ludicrous!

There is no rationale, no logic, that would support your approach.

The news over the past few weeks gives the travel industry hope that by spring next year there is the chance that international travel will start moving again. With the development of a vaccine the end of this crisis may finally be in sight and with that, the prospect of a well-deserved holiday for millions of people.

But time is running out. If help isn’t there for the immediate winter months ahead, many viable travel companies won’t clear the final hurdle. Perhaps now is the time to step up your support for the sector?

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