The furlough rules for travel need to be relaxed so agents can re-book as many customers as possible, says Thompson Travel owner Sharon Thompson.

I always thought that furlough was a good thing. It’s a bit like a leave of absence for a soldier or a church leader. Time to relax and not worry about your normal job and with most of your pay.


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But it has taken on a whole new meaning this month for the travel industry, including we independent travel agents. How do you send your staff home on 80% of their salary to do nothing in an attempt to save money and at the same time keep others in work on the same or a reduced wage? Or do you send them all home and look after the business all by yourself?

“How do you send your staff home on 80% of their salary to do nothing in an attempt to save money and at the same time keep others in work on the same or a reduced wage?”

I know the whole industry is suffering: tour operators, airlines and cruise lines, as well as we agents, acting on their behalf.

But it’s so challenging. Suppliers have all given us different rules and conditions of change, and we are working through it as best we can.

We listen to concerned, worried and frightened customers who don’t know what they can do. We console them. We take and absorb aggression from them. And we do this with no reward for the bookings we worked hard on last year and which will most likely be cancelled.

Re-booking clients

We are frantically trying to get customers re-booked with our supplier partners, and to get their balances in. We are also helping those who just can’t go and want their money back. There is no one way to fix every booking. We need as many agents working as possible, to have those conversations with customers. Yet without new bookings coming in, how can we afford not to furlough staff?

If only every supplier had the same rules. That would be a start and allow us to cut costs. And if we could just give everyone who is due to travel credit for a year, at least those booked for April and May, that would help too. It’s pretty obvious no one is going anywhere for at least two months. It seems an impossible task, but look how much has been done in a few weeks.

“There is no one way to fix every booking. We need as many agents working as possible, to have those conversations with customers.”

I must thank some of the major cruise lines and tour operators which have protected our commission and were proactive in looking after their agents and clients. We will remember you after this.

We want to be here in the future. We want to support suppliers in the future. But we need help to make this whole situation easier.

The furlough scheme just doesn’t work for the majority of our industry. There needs to be some relaxation to allow staff to work from home, and for businesses, whether agent or supplier, to still get assistance with salaries if needed. And we need answers quickly.

Staying safe

This crisis will end, and our industry will help reboot the economy – so we deserve the support and understanding of government.

My daughter is working on the frontline in the Covid-19 unit, which makes it hard to keep my chin up in the middle of all of this. But it keeps it front of mind that it’s important to remember what they say about your health being your wealth. So stay home, stay sane and keep well.

“My daughter is working on the frontline in the Covid-19 unit, which makes it hard to keep my chin up in the middle of all of this.”

And to any of my travel industry friends who have symptoms or have been diagnosed with this virus, I pray for your speedy recovery.


Any help with business costs is welcome

It seems a bit unfair to me that businesses based in the UK mainland will benefit from a 12-month business rates holiday yet Northern Ireland has been offered just three months.

Any help with overheads is welcomed, but really, only three months for us? Lots of companies are having their rent, mortgages and other overheads deferred. Is this just kicking the ball up the field? Let’s not forget we will all be paying this back big style. Remember, it wasn’t until 2006 the UK finished paying back the US for our debt from the Second World War.


Webcast: Staff retention scheme ‘does not fully work for travel’