By Isabel Conway
Travel off the island may still be off the table but the roll out of vaccines and availability of COVID testing at airports looks like being a game changer. After the most bruising year in history for the industry Travel Times talks to travel professionals.
The award winning online Travel Agent
“It has been dire – terrible doesn’t even describe this past year”, declares Paul Hackett chief Executive of online travel agency Click& Go, low price holiday market leaders. “You keep a smiley face on for the staff with only a trickle of bookings coming in, though there are more positive signs of a pick up from the second and third quarter onwards”.
Is that being over-optimistic, I ask. Maybe, Hackett reflects but regardless of how fast the vaccine is rolled out affordable pre-departure COVID testing at airports will be key to re-booting travel again. “Consumers are justifiably nervous about going out and about who will be coming in but if Joe public knew everyone travelling in and out had tested negative people’s anxiety would lessen.”
Light at the end of the tunnel? “It’s hard to tell yet . With the country still at level 5 consumers are thinking, not about taking a holiday , but about getting the vaccine”. Gazing into his crystal ball ,Click & Go’s boss reports that data from his website suggests that Lanzarote, the Algarve, Tenerife and Gran Canaria are attracting the most interest from a public that dreams of a sun holiday this year. Short European city breaks will suffer most, he thinks, due to the demands of an expensive PCR test most countries require, apart from any fears of difficulties about social distancing in busy urban settings.
With airlines so desperate to fill seats from spring onwards Hackett says there is “great value out there”. Click & Go package holidays with Aer Lingus flights attached are outselling ones linked to Ryanair, most probably because the company has a €1 deposit for packages with Aer Lingus flights. Customers are obliged by Ryanair to pay in full at the time of booking if a package includes a flight with it. There is an understandable fear over what might happen if “things go pear shaped again this year”, he points out.
Some people struggled to get refunds or even credit notes after flights and holidays were cancelled in 2020. Hackett adds “we stayed open to manage the refunds as best we could”.
Given the dire scenario the travel industry faced from March onwards it seems surprising that so few – only a handful of travel agencies to date – collapsed. Paul Hackett says the government supports for businesses and wage subsidies “though never enough” did help. “Yet nobody visualized this crisis continuing for so long; many of us thought the virus could be contained and business would come back, if not by autumn certainly for winter holidays.
So we carried on as best we could, but the longer it has gone on the harder it is to continue trading with no income”.
The Travel Insurance specialist
“When travel does come back, travel insurance is going to be more relevant than ever before” says Jeanette Taylor, who left Sunway Holidays where she was Ireland sales manager after 16 years just before international travel ground to a halt last March. She is now Agency Sales and Service manager for Blue Insurance. “Many people were caught with the refund situation during the pandemic, and I think the public will be very slow to travel without insurance in future”. She believes.
Jeanette joined Blue insurance after its dynamic founder Ciaran Mulligan stepped down as MD to be replaced by his long- time colleague Maeve Slamon. She now looks back on “a year like no other for all in the travel trade but one that has shown the benefits of booking with a travel agent or tour operator; they have all put in Trojan efforts to help their customers”.
Blue Insurance has been impacted significantly by COVID as the majority of its business is travel related. During the summer months Jeanette and her colleagues assisted customers with queries and developed extra COVID related cover to policies for those travelling to Green List countries, also launching staycation insurance for consumers.
As to positive signs ahead, Jeanette believes an efficient vaccine strategy will be key to re-booting the industry. Like many she is also critical of government inconsistency relating to travel advice which fuelled uncertainty throughout the second half of 2020 with all the confusion surrounding the EU traffic light system and no corona virus test facilities at Irish airports in contrast to other European countries. “There are some excellent deals out there for next summer and friends in the trade are starting to see some bookings so we are hopeful of looking forward to having holidays abroad again this year”.
The Specialist US Boutique Travel Agency
Over half a million Irish travellers went on holidays to the US in 2019 ranking us up among the top 20 countries of the world visiting the land of Stars and Stripes. “The USA will hopefully be back for the start of some travel by June or July”, forecasts Ciara Foley, the dynamo behind Platinum Travel, a Dublin based family business.
Their extensive American itineraries combine a wealth of history, culture, fun and great outdoors experiences. Awesome mountainous beauty of Montana and North & South Dakota to melting pot Southern states of Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi, with everything in between, are offered on niche road trips, escorted tours and city packages.
If there is a good roll out of the vaccine and once US borders are open again, we Irish will be returning to the States with a calm Biden administration giving people more faith to travel there safely, she believes. Looking back on the past year and ongoing challenges Foley compares the travel business to” a flower shop with no flowers to sell; our office is in the sky”
“Everyone had a hard time but the travel industry were the hardest hit by this pandemic. Bookings made back as far as the summer of 2019 had to be refunded in full to clients, wiping out all profits back six months before the pandemic ever began.
Faced with 125 pc losses over the past year, no new travel open date, but having to stay open and service bookings for free decimated an industry that was employing 3,000 people”.
The government supports have not been enough to cover the travel industry losses, she explains. Surprisingly, prior to the COVID pandemic quite a percentage of Irish travel businesses were not members of the Irish Travel Agents Association. ITAA stalwarts, including former President of the Association Clare Dunne of the Travel Broker and Paul Hackett of Click & Go have done a trojan job lobbying government on behalf of the industry. “We weren’t members of the ITAA either but they have fought so hard for everyone; I hope that’s rewarded with many more joining up”. Another lesson to be learnt over the past year, according to Foley, is that travel agency staff value themselves more. “We have extensive product and destination knowledge, we offer the safety of our licence and bond so clients are protected but too often we’ve been used as an information bank or type of tourist office, People walked in, picked our brains, carried out the brochures and went home to arrange their own holidays online”.
The traditional ‘travel agent’ model needs to be revamped, she believes, and a monetary value placed on expert consultation like with other specialist information that could be offset against booked holidays.
How We’ll Travel
Travel was in ongoing lockdown but Cassidy Travel’s ten shops business had reason to celebrate in 2020. Winners of many awards over the years they were voted Ireland’s favourite Travel Agent in the Irish Independent’s Reader Travel Awards. “Trustworthy”, “great deals” and “tailor made options” for holidaymakers featured in the comments. John Spollen, a founder and director of Cassidy Travel says the win gave them a great boost in the eye of the ongoing storm.
Even when travel returns – and he’s seeing a few green shoots such as honeymoon bookings and enquiries for bucket list trips – there will be differences for the foreseeable future in how we travel and the destinations holidaymakers choose. “The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed how we travelled through airports with regard to security, carrying liquids and so on; now we will get used to new procedures like PCR COVID free tests and mask wearing in airports and aboard the aircraft; that will be a fact of life. In Asia air travellers have been wearing masks for a decade and longer”.
The outgoing President of the Irish Travel Agents Association prior to the pandemic John Spollen says that the confusing signals from governments on travel restrictions and the lack of joined up thinking was extremely challenging.
But the roll out of the vaccine is the game changer and in his opinion the travel industry will come back stronger, though there may not be a significant bounce until 2022. “I think green shoots will start sprouting from April onwards on account of the vaccine and by July we will see a lot more happening; there is pent up demand for getting off the island next summer”.
Travel trends he sees emerging are that extra money in people’s pockets will be spent on travelling further afield, to the Seychelles, the Maldives, an African safari, villa holidays rather than apartments, walking holidays and other options where social distancing is easier.
“The most important thing is having patience because this will pass,” adds Spollen. The much smaller number of routes operated by Aer Lingus and other carriers still continue to provide optimism and the opportunity to get away when its safe again. “There’s “amazing value in holidays and airfares out there with cancellation policies that have never been more flexible”.
He hopes the tsunami of booking cancellations, rescheduling and refunds that continued all through last year also demonstrated the worth of using a travel agent and how behind closed doors and unpaid the industry continued to offer the public a port of security during an unprecedented crisis.