• Megan McIntyre

Coronavirus: why the travel industry needs to be flexible

A month ago, I was hosting a group of bloggers in Borneo. Around this time, we were probably sipping cocktails and marvelling at the sounds of the South China Sea as it lapped the shores of the beautiful hotel we were at. How times change!

Today – like most of the world’s population – I’m at home on lockdown, pondering when life will get back to ‘normal’ and just what that will look like.

For anyone who works in, or on the periphery of, travel and hospitality, it’s sad to see borders close, streets quiet and businesses furloughing staff, but it may well be heartbreaking to see what emerges from the Coronavirus ashes.

We will no doubt lose a number of talented people from the industry across all levels – from chefs who won’t reopen their restaurants to shining stars of hospitality who seek more reliable and well-paid work. Tour operators who can’t pay their bills as they’ve lost a peak season’s worth of bookings. Airlines who fold because their cash flow can’t sustain the refunds from cancelled flights.

What will the world of travel look like when the borders do reopen? Sadly, I don’t have a crystal ball but like many people, I have hunches.

I expect the world to still want to travel: to seek solace in revisiting old favourites, to hug their family and friends on the other side of the world, or to fulfil long-held wishes of climbing, diving, walking, eating or dancing in a new destination.

Travel is likely to be more expensive: demand may come back in floods or a trickle, and long-term it will likely return to where it was in 2019, but sadly the suppliers will not all be there to welcome tourists back. As the remaining airlines, hotels and travel companies seek to claw back some of their lost revenues, they are likely to increase prices.

I can already see this increase when exploring options for my own soon-to-be-cancelled flights to Italy for May: booking for next year will cost around 18.4% more (exact like-for-like dates for next year aren’t currently on sale but I expect prices will mirror, if not increase, that change as our plans included a peak travel date: a bank holiday weekend exit from the UK).

This is where the industry needs to do more. The travelling public don’t want to lose their favourite airlines, hotels, tour guides or restaurants. But much of the travelling public simply need the cash back as they themselves are out of work for the foreseeable future with bills to pay. Travel may be seen by some as a need, but over the past month and the coming weeks, it is clear that is instead a big want, certainly for the leisure market.

As much as people may want to help keep travel companies in business, they need to keep themselves afloat. Vouchers for the value of existing travel arrangements which many companies are offering – and in some cases, strong-arming consumers to take – aren’t always viable. Not only may the consumer need the money, they may not be able to travel in the 12-month period many companies are offering.

People may be happy to change existing flights to later dates yet remain anxious about picking dates as no-one knows when travel will be allowed, or if borders will reopen and close again if the virus' infamous curve picks up again. If a holidaymaker does change dates, why should they be penalised by having to pay more for the same product simply because a (hopefully!) once in a lifetime pandemic has scuppered their 2020 holiday plan?

Travel companies need their consumers now more than ever. To ensure trust in their brand – and their very survival – they need to be flexible with customers and show their understanding through real actions.

If a customer can’t travel within 12 months, companies should be more flexible (and some, thankfully, already are).

If a customer still wants to travel but doesn’t know when they can, a voucher could be issued for like-for-like flights with a mutually agreed expiry date, no further charge payable, ensuring customers aren’t paying out more than what they have for the same service they’ve already paid for.

And if a customer still wants the cash back, they should be able to easily obtain it. Travel companies need to cut the red tape and stop hiding the refund option.

Keeping a roof over their family’s heads and food on the table are the priorities for everyone in exceptional circumstances like this. Without the survival of their customers now and treating them like the individuals they are, no travel company will be able to survive what is to come when the borders reopen.

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