Travel agents face a “very difficult” balancing act next month when they can re-open shops and warn doing so is a “double-edged sword”.

The government’s roadmap out of lockdown currently allows for non-essential shops in England to reopen from April 12, but speakers at Travel Weekly Future of Travel Spring Forum pointed out that agents won’t earn money from sales until holidays resume.

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive at Advantage Travel Partnership, said re-opening shops is a “double-edged sword” as agents must justify salary costs against keeping staff on furlough.

“Agents want to get back to normality, they want to get back to serve their clients – but in terms of aligning that with government support, it’s not aligned,” she said.

“International travel is still banned and [agencies] will be caught: they’ll be able to open but effectively, they’re still shut down.

“It’s a really difficult one to try to get the government to understand.”

Miles Morgan, chairman at Miles Morgan Travel, agreed that the decision about reopening is “very difficult”.

“When [prime minister] Boris made his announcement a few weeks ago, there were headlines for a while about sales being 600% up and the like,” he said.

“There was a feeling that it instantly meant people like me were getting cash. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“The majority of those bookings are for future seasons, winter, maybe even next year.

“There has been a lack of understanding from government since day one, 12 months ago, on how our sector works, what the financial model is, and how we make money and when we make money.”

He said he needs two members of staff in each agency if the premises open up but currently he has fewer people working on a Saturday than he has branches.

“I have to take advantage of furlough because the sales don’t justify anything different. So it is going to be a challenge on April 12,” he said.

However, he does expect there to be leaks ahead of the announcement on April 12 that may give him more confidence about opening up.

MoreComment: Life for an agent is still a challenge

“The one thing that’s definitely true is my staff cannot wait,” he added.

“Everybody’s been at home a long, long time. The novelty was great while the weather was fantastic 12 months ago, but now everybody longs for a bit of normality.

“Actually putting your uniform on and going into work is a lovely feeling and one that everybody is really looking forward to.”

Working from home fatigue

Lo Bue-Said also said there is a sense of fatigue about working from home.

“We are a people industry and we do business by meeting people,” she said.

“The need to interact with people, meet new people, meet new businesses and prospects will be so important coming out of this.

“I can’t see us being without conferences, events, and all the great things that our industry does so well.”

Furlough dilemma

Debbie Goffin, sales and marketing director at Premier Holidays, said operators also had the dilemma of “to furlough or not to furlough”.

She said operators needed to keep staff working in order to manage cancellations and keep selling future holidays.

“Customers haven’t stopped dreaming; customers haven’t stopped having conversations about planning future holidays even if they’re not ready to book and that’s taken staff to do that,” she said.

“That goes back to the fundamental understanding of the government, not realising that we can’t hibernate our businesses.”