Digital Drums’ chief executive Steve Dunne says travel must change the message to get support

As a seasoned observer of the UK outbound travel industry I have watched with a mixture of horror, sadness and incredulity at what affect Covid-19 has had on the sector.

On dozens of occasions I have shook my head in dismay at the government’s apparent unwillingness to acknowledge or listen to the voices of travel brands and their leaders for assistance in tackling the impacts of the pandemic on travel companies, jobs and consumers.

I have witnessed travel associations and thousands of individuals lobbying and taking to social media to urge the government to step in. It’s heartbreaking to observe.

But travel has so many voices, with slightly different messages, and the government is hearing the same demands and claims from many other sectors.

That’s the heart of the issue here. On the government’s priority list, the outbound travel sector, despite the money it generates and jobs it provides, is not at the top of the pile. It may not be in the top 20, for all we know. And with so many industries laying people off, the threat facing travel is just another challenge on a list of hundreds for the government.

Change the message

Given all that, it is easy to see why ignoring the pleas from a range of industry voices, social media campaigns and petitions is not difficult. If voices just plead, cajole or complain, it is relatively easy to switch off to them.

So I found myself applying strategic principles to the challenge.

If ministers and civil servants are hearing the same messages from dozens of industries, then the travel sector should change its message.

If every industry is asking for similar handouts or furlough extensions, maybe the travel sector goes to the government with a strikingly different proposal.

Instead of asking for support, which might be seen as a taxpayer handout in unsympathetic circles, travel needs to come up with a more imaginative deal that will make the government look good while helping the sector. Now, I’ll admit I haven’t worked through all the detail, but for now let’s just look at the principle. It could work like this…

The sector appoints one trade body to represent the industry. Every member then signs up to a scheme – let’s call it Lend Lease, for now.

The industry then asks the government for financial support of a certain amount to take it to the end of, for example, 2022.

In exchange, the government is given a ‘golden share’ in each participating travel company. The participating members will for the next X-number of years pay a dividend, if certain financial criteria are met. Other shareholders are not paid out while the government’s ‘golden share’ is in place. During the Lend Lease period, each participating member could pay 10% of its turnover to the government every year to help repay the loan. Both these conditions stay in place until the industry (or the company) has repaid the loan element of the deal.

As I say, it needs to be worked through carefully, but it is different from what other sectors might be asking for.

Make it work for government

There is no doubt the outbound travel industry is struggling to get its dire situation through to the government in a way that resonates with a sense of urgency.

But if the sector approaches the government with a solution distinctly different to that of other industries; and if the solution presented has something in it for the government, and the taxpayer, then perhaps, just perhaps, it may win
the ear of the powers that be.

Whatever happens, the outbound travel sector has to approach the challenge it faces more creatively and strategically to get itself heard.
Let’s hope that’s soon.