The trade needs to rebuild public trust in order to rebound, says Der Touristik UK chief executive Derek Jones
It’s a measure of how much the travel industry has alienated its customer base that when I tentatively suggested a government funded, ‘Go Away to Save the Day’ incentive to encourage nervous travellers to book a holiday for next summer it was greeted with a pretty hefty dose of cynicism. Even allowing for that fact that this was on Twitter, where some trolling is to be expected, the strength of negative feeling took me by surprise.
Compare this to the positive reaction to Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ incentive, which has been widely welcomed, and you can see the scale of the damage that’s been done. Despite the increasing number of well publicised job losses in the travel sector and the all too obvious blockages standing in the way of recovery, the attitude of the public appears to sit somewhere between disinterested and antagonistic.
Some of this opposition is based on an understandable cautiousness around international travel right now. Many people question the need to travel on holiday at all when the UK’s record on Covid-19 is the poorest in Europe, arguing that we should control the virus here rather than exporting it to countries that have done a better job. Others think it’s just not safe yet to travel; that airport terminals, aircraft cabins and communal hotel spaces are just too difficult to socially distance in and are to be avoided.
All of these objections can of course be countered. With the right measures in place, there’s no scientific reason to stop people from travelling abroad on holiday. Countries with effective track and trace measures and good social distancing etiquettes are desperate for visitors to return. And anyway, my idea was not to incentivise travel for this summer but to encourage forward bookings for next year; and to provide much needed revenue for tour operators and travel agents now.
So why is the suggestion of a government funded holiday incentive greeted with so much scepticism when an ‘Eat out…’ campaign is broadly welcomed? After all, incentivising people to travel internationally should pose no greater health threat than encouraging them to eat out in a local restaurant.
Economically, the government is naturally going to favour incentives that directly support the UK economy – a pound spent on a UK high street is more valuable to them than a pound converted to a euro and spent elsewhere in Europe – but this takes no account of UK job losses. The furlough scheme didn’t favour export jobs over import jobs so why should that approach change now? A travel agent is no less valuable to the economy than a restaurant manager.
There is a strong argument to be made that the overseas travel sector (and indeed inbound tourism) has already been disproportionately impacted by the virus and will continue to be over the coming months – even years. Up to 200,000 jobs are directly at risk with many already being lost. Potential job losses on this scale would normally, and quite naturally, provoke a reasonable level of sympathy and understanding.
So there’s a public health objection and there’s an economic objection, but both of these can be dealt with… and after all, we’re talking about holidays; surely people should welcome any incentive to take an overseas trip after months of lockdown.
But there’s another factor at play. For every rational objection based on economic, health or hygiene concerns there is another huge emotional objection arising from one thing: the travel industry’s failure to adequately care for and refund customers whose holidays were cancelled as a result of Covid-19.
Holidaymakers are mad as hell with us.
At Kuoni, as the crisis unfolded, we took the decision to maintain a core team of staff working from home to process refunds, rebook holidays and be available to reassure our customers. As a result, we have been widely recognised by travel agents and consumer organisations for getting it right. We’re not alone in this. Some other businesses did the same; big ones like Trailfinders and Jet 2, and smaller ones like Vivid and our own specialist brands, Carrier, Jules Verne and Journey Latin America.
Sadly though, not all travel businesses and airlines followed suit.
The debate about refunds has raged for months. Could the government have stepped in to support travel businesses sooner? Should refund credit notes have been recognised and protected? Did businesses really not have the capacity and wherewithal to administer refunds in a timely fashion? All of these questions will be debated long into the future and will ultimately lead to changes in the way that travel businesses operate financially, but anyone in the industry who thinks that the public are listening to the nuances of this debate needs to wake up. They just think they’re being ripped off.
If you don’t believe me, try searching on Twitter or Facebook for ‘holidays refunds’. Or pop over to Trust Pilot and read some recent reviews. There are thousands of disaffected customers out there and they all want their voices to be heard. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has written to over 100 travel businesses warning them that they need to take action now to resolve refund issues. Both Which? and Money Saving Expert have been vocal in their criticism. This is not a story that’s going away.
It’s all too easy to write this off as just a short term reaction. I recently heard a senior industry figure saying that his customers would soon forget that he’d held on to their money; businesses that refunded, he said, would see no long term benefit from it in the future. But I think he’s wrong; I think there’s now a huge problem of trust and it’s damaging the ability of the sector to recover.
This week, as Europe tentatively opens up once more to UK arrivals, we’ve seen more evidence that customers remain nervous about booking – convinced that if there’s another spike in Covid-19 they may once again be left out of pocket.
I’d thought about launching a petition to press for more direct government support but the chances of success right now are slim. Instead, I will be reminding customers at every opportunity that not every business has behaved in the same way; that some of us have consistently offered refunds and maintained a team of travel experts to help them throughout the crisis.
Sadly, that doesn’t mean we can avoid redundancies now – like many other businesses in the sector we are having to let go of some amazing people. People we’ve invested in for years. Passionate, knowledgeable travel experts who are part of the Kuoni family.
Without direct government support we will have to hibernate harder and for longer than we would like but, by doing the right thing, and by reminding people relentlessly that we are a business they can trust, we can put ourselves in a great position to come back stronger.
The rebuilding of trust and confidence will be a slow process. The way the industry has handled this crisis will inevitably lead to lasting changes in the way travel businesses are financially structured, but for now, customers don’t just need to know that their destination is safe, they need to know that their money is safe too.
Until we cross that hurdle, the chance of securing further government support is low.
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