Miles Morgan Travel chairman Miles Morgan says ‘current fudge does not work’

The past few weeks have been the toughest in my 30-plus years in travel, and I bet few would argue with that for themselves in these extraordinary times.

The role of the travel agent is always a challenging one. As well as being an agent, you are also a confidant and, often, a friend too. But doing the best for our customers has never been harder as we try and likewise support our partner suppliers.

Honesty is best

Until the Package Travel Regulations change, Foreign Office advice which says destinations are not to be visited triggers a customer refund. This is the law, and sadly no spin or bluster from operators, or even Abta, changes this fact.

We all understand the challenges of refunds for suppliers when, up the chain, airlines flout the law and hoteliers hold tightly on to cash.

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Our role as an agent is to support our customers and find a way through this minefield. It is not an easy role as we don’t want to see our supplier partners go to the wall but, equally, we have an obligation to our customers to tell them the truth and fight for their best interests.

I have spoken to numerous customers over the past few weeks and honesty, as ever, seems the best policy. I tell them about the upstream chain of money that suppliers cannot access and the unprecedented level of refunds suppliers are expected to find, and they get it!

Help us, Abta

My personal view is that Abta should go all out on behalf of suppliers and say to government ‘we will break the law and not refund until airlines come in line and pay out’.

The current fudge does not work for me. The FCO’s latest advice against overseas travel until an ‘indefinite’ date, which it quietly updated on Saturday, gives the perfect ammunition to say this is a totally untenable position for Abta members.

If lots of suppliers would go bust if pushed to refund, what are we risking anyway? Once the chargebacks on credit cards start arriving with travel agents, I fear the agent/supplier relationships could become very strained indeed. Can we defend these? In theory, yes, but who knows?

I also implore Abta to engage with the grassroots trade more. Help us, guide us and support us. Where is its advice on the FCO’s latest rule change? All I have seen is a piece saying it changes nothing. Really? Why would anyone now pay a balance when their deposit is refundable?

I fully understand Abta is trying to play things down, but we need to know A) the law and B) Abta’s advice. At the moment, we are only seeing its advice while us agents at the sharp end get it in the neck, blind to the actual facts behind these changes.

Customer trust is key

A travel agent has a tough job in the good times; now, that job has never been harder. This is while most are being run by a small team of un-furloughed staff, essential to survive this period.

We need help from the leaders of our industry, and for them to give us the facts, not just the spin. We need to know how best to support clients when we meet and talk to them virtually.

Unlike a lot of the online travel agents, who appear to have run to the hills, we are still replying on social media channels, still replying to emails and still answering the phone – because we value customer service.

The strong will come through this, but we must not lose the trust of that essential ingredient for our future success: our customers.