You have been at Jayes Travel Newcastle for 14 years. Have you ever seen anything like this?
Never. I don't even know what to compare it to, because there is nothing. In the past we have seen travel bans for certain countries, environmental factors like earthquakes and volcanoes eruptions, but these have always been geographically confined. To have something affect us globally and so quickly is unprecedented.
How would you describe the rolling impact of coronavirus on your industry?
We were cautious initially and obviously warning people not to travel to China, Iran and Italy. The statistics showed the risk of you getting COVID-19 was extremely low - there was more chance of winning the lotto. Airlines and touring companies were following suit. I flew with a colleague to Thailand for a travel conference in mid-March. While we were there, the situation started to unravel rapidly. Hearing of how quickly it had spread and rumours of borders closing, I bought a new ticket and returned home - instead of continuing my travels. Still at that point, our concern was with the disruption to travel, not the virus itself. We wanted to ensure that the holiday people were planning, is what it would be. If you've dreamt of going to Paris, how disappointing if the Louvre was closed. The focus now has shifted to the health impacts of the virus itself, but the economic affects cannot be understated.
Most travel insurance policies (not all, just most!) do not cover for a pandemic.Michelle Barker
The current impact on your business?
It's really hard. Unimaginable. I have many consultants who operate their own business within Jayes Travel and their business has come to a standstill. I have had to make the awful decision to lay off staff, who are amazing. Staff who have always gone above and beyond. It's heartbreaking. Added to that, we still have a huge workload to get through, but no income. We are helping our clients to postpone their holidays, make new plans, speaking to each and every client. All of our clients are still getting the advantage of a travel agent. We are working behind the scenes so our clients don't have to.
What strategies have you got in place?
I don't think you can ever be ready for something of this level. While we always had planning for a rainy day, this is a storm! We've cut all unnecessary expenses for the short term, knowing when this bounces back we need to be able to kick back into gear. I think the important thing here is your core 'team' - your accountant, landlord etc - and having open discussions and trusting in their advice.
Your advice to clients regarding future bookings?
For the next three months, we recommend postponing travel. From July, we are recommending a 'wait and see' approach. Many airlines don't have a policy in place and therefore it is waiting until we get the best outcomes, to ensure all monies can be for future use - and our clients aren't losing out.
Will most travellers be out of pocket?
Most travel insurance policies (not all, just most!) do not cover for a pandemic. Even with a travel ban, there are few circumstances where you can claim. On a brighter note, airlines, hotels and touring companies have been very generous. People may be disappointed that they are getting a credit rather than a refund, but refunds will kill the travel industry. Instead credits are being issued - to postpone and travel later. Airlines are giving people more than a year to travel in same cases. Non-refundable hotel bookings are allowing a 12-month credit. Touring companies are allowing customers to change to 2021 or 2022. Plus they are giving extra value to the existing booking - in some cases offering 150% for the new booking.
Have you had clients stuck overseas, given airlines have axed services?
Yes, it was our first focus - where is everyone right now. This is the most heartbreaking part. Customers who had started their dream holiday and couldn't continue due to border closures or flight cancellations. These changes were being undertaken by our staff at all hours, dealing with the time zone and making sure we get our travellers home.
Any silver linings?
How amazing our clients are. I don't even like the word because the way they treat us is as friends. They have been so patient and understanding. We have people that aren't affected or don't have a holiday currently booked, reaching out and wishing us well. Sending messages of support and that 'we are in this together'. When you are in quarantine and with the work you are dealing with, this brightens your day. There aren't enough words to say thank you to the people who have shared their support and wished us well.
How long will your industry be affected?
With how rapidly this situation changes it is difficult to know. My hope is that people start planning holidays from July onwards and we are all travelling from September. What is concerning is that when the world returns to 'normal' there will be questions around job security, taking time off work, savings and super may have been depleted. Travel is a discretionary expense, and the industry will feel this beyond the initial travel bans in place. As an industry we need to take this time to regroup, plan for the future - and be ready if everyone needs a holiday to recover from self-isolation.