Prepare for an “Adult only” Summer 21 holiday season?

The pushing back of “Freedom Day” by 4 weeks to 19th July, was yet another major blow to outbound tourism, as appears unlikely that the UK Government is going to allow outbound travel, whilst the UK domestic restrictions are in force.

 It’s frustrating that having given the outbound travel industry hope at the beginning of the year, with the introduction of a “Traffic Light” system, that this immediately went out the window, with the only mass-market holiday destination i.e Portugal removed after a few short weeks on the green list, creating a stifling “amber blanket” of excessing Covid-19 testing.

 Having been seduced into booking a trip to Portugal whilst it was in Green, I decided to go ahead and travel, using the shorter 5-day quarantine, but incurring a whopping £500 extra in testing cost in order to use the “test to release scheme”.

 My journey to and from Portugal could not have been smoother, with hardly any hold up at customs and super quick bag delivery, but that’s unsurprising given how few people are travelling at the moment. I share industry fears that the combination of extra Brexit checks, locator forms and fit to fly certification, could slow border control clearance to a snail’s pace.

 Portugal itself was a delight! Friendly people, wall to wall sunshine and great food, is a holiday recipe that cannot be beaten. Even with the extra testing costs, the total holiday cost was still better value than a UK break and unlike UK beach’s, there were no crowds.

 The UK Governments attitude to outbound travel is clear in the priorities they have set “Track and Trace” staff. When a month ago our daughter caught Covid-19 and we had to quarantine as a family, we received zero phone calls or visits. However, since returning from Portugal we have been hounded with daily phone calls and 2 home visits, to make sure we are quarantining correctly. Given I am double jabbed and have been tested 4 times in the last 10 days, this level of attention just shouts, “pointless politics”.

 The Government is clearly split over allowing overseas travel this summer, with the “hawks” constantly quoting the threat of new covid-19 variants. The hawks conveniently ignore 3 key factors;

 1.    Amber zone Stats. 151 countries have Zero returning customers infected with Covid-19 on return. Why can some of these not be added to the green list?

2.    Double Jabbed protection. Less than 1% of people who are double jabbed are being hospitalised if they catch Covid-19 and infection rates are drastically down.

3.    Variants of Concern. Current Covid-19 infections in the UK are dominated by the Delta Variant, which is the most infectious variant found to date, so what Variants of concern are we really worried about?  It’s also now proven that strict border controls just delay the entry of new variants like the Delta strain and can not prevent it. Just look at Australia and New Zealand. The only route to safety is vaccination and the UK seems to have won this race, so it’s now time to balance protection of life with economic and mental health concerns.

 The UK population is fed up with being “locked down” and wants a return to normal, which includes overseas holidays. Some factions in the Government clearly support this and want to allow people who have been double jabbed to travel to green or amber listed countries without having to quarantine on return, if they pass their 72-hour fit to fly and a 2-day PCR tests. This seems a logical and balanced way of reducing risk whilst allowing travel to restart, however, children under 18 have not been double jabbed, so families will not benefit.

 It’s unlikely that families will want their children quarantining indoors for 10 days on return from amber countries, even if they are off school and although testing costs will be reduced, they remain expensive for families putting most off travelling. I think the travel industry needs to accept any compromise offered, even if it does in effect create an Adult only market for Summer 21 holidays.

 If the Government did show some common sense, it could either make available the currently massively underutilised NHS PCR testing capacity, to families and cover its costs by charging £25 per test or accept Antigen testing for children in the same way it does in schools.

 However, so far logic has been in short supply, so start updating your marketing to focus on an Adult only Summer 21 holiday season starting from July 19th.

 Freedom Day for families is likely to exclude overseas holidays, unfortunately.

CAA ATOL Reform. Whom are the CAA looking to protect? Customers or themselves.

The new CAA ATOL Reform document is clearly presented and contains a lot of common sense. However, as usual, the CAA has ignored the same fundamental issues.

Consumers can buy unregulated DIY holidays with a few clicks of the mouse, booking flights via Skyscanner or direct with airlines and hotels via Booking.com, Trivago etc. These providers have no restrictions on how they use customer cash and no ATOL bonding costs.

Although the Covid-19 Pandemic has pushed customer back towards a human touch and personal service, there is a clear limit to how much of a price premium customer will pay for these services.

The Government has already contributed to the destruction of our high streets by making them uncompetitive compared to internet rivals like Amazon, via business rates and VAT. The CAA is now doing the same to travel, by imposing an ever-increasing regulatory load and ATOL bonding costs, that make ATOL protected holidays uncompetitive in price versus booking directly with airlines and building your own holiday.

In my experience customers booking on credit cards, worry little about other elements of financial protection and never even consider health and safety issues.

 Although the word “Aviation” appears in the CAA’s name, they are ducking the question of how airlines protect customer monies, claiming it’s outside their remit and dependent on the Government taking forward an “Airline Insolvency Review”.

As an industry, I suggest we refuse to co-operate with the CAA on this supposed “consultation”, until this ridiculous situation is resolved, and airlines are included.

Airlines and payments to them during the holiday booking process, are fundamental to allowing “Trust Fund Structures” to work smoothly and it’s completely unreasonable for the CAA to expect ATOL holders to carry further regulatory burdens because they are scared of dealing with the powerful airline lobby.

The non-regulation of airlines, when it comes to the use of customers money was the industries fundamental issue during Covid-19. It’s well documented that when Covid-19 hit, none of the major UK airlines had sufficient cash to be able to refund customers causing delays in refunds being processed which directly knocked on to the ability of OTA’s and agents to refund customers, even when trust funds were in place.

The CAA highlight “slow refunds” as a major driver for their suggested changes, but are not including airlines in their recommendations.

The CAA is looking to push all ATOL holders away from “bonding” to operating trust funds, but at the same time are greatly tightening trust fund payment terms and introducing variable ATOL fees, to allow them to reward/penalising ATOL holders with higher fees if they choose what the CAA consider higher-risk options.

The CAA are offering two types of Trust funds.

1. Total Segregation.

Here no supplier payments e.g., airlines, hotels or travel commissions, can be paid before holiday return, with the ATOL holder also having to fund all operational/advertising costs until the return date, when their margins can be released.

This requires a few fundamental changes.

o  Airline payment. A huge increase in working capital will be required to fund these, as customer monies cannot be used and unless forced by the government, it’s unlikely Airlines will change payment terms.

o  Agent Commissions. Agents instead of remitting final balances “net” of their commissions, will have to pay gross and wait an extra 8-10 weeks to receive a commission payment on the return of the customer. Again, requiring an investment of extra working capital.

o  Pipeline money. Any money held by agents will need to be held in a trust fund or segregated account, increasing administration and reducing working capital

2.  Partial Segregation.

The CAA are proposing to allow 20% of the total price of a holiday to be paid in advance to airlines, with the ATOL holder having to provide a “Bond” equal to any extra need to book flights.

o  Example. £2,000 holiday would allow £400 advance (@20%) and if flights cost £1,000 a “Bond” to cover extra £600 is required.

o  Bonds. The bond would be relatively cheap as it would be secured on money held in trust and needed primarily if the airline failed, but no market currently exists for this product.

 Variable ATOL Fees. The CAA are logically suggesting that higher risk companies or higher value bookings should pay a higher ATOL fee. However, its likely that this will mean an increase in cost, over the historic flat £2.50 fee and will give the CAA free reign to charge what they want. In reality any ATOL holder who wants to continue trading has no option but to say yes to what the CAA demands.

A cynical person would say that the only thing happening here is that the CAA are increasing their protection and reducing the likelihood of a claim on the ATOL fund. In essence, they are forcing ATOL holders to hold back further funds to refund customers for flight costs, when this would not be needed, if the CAA were able to force prompt refunds from airlines.

Why should ATOL holders take the working capital hit for this? This must be boarding on a restraint of trade issue and is likely to result in a legal challenge in the courts.

Many years ago, David Speakman (Ex Travel Counsellors) proposed a “Travel Bank” that would hold all customer payments and automatically gave suppliers access to funds once they had delivered their element of a holiday.

This has to be the right approach and airline need to be brought into line, accepting later payment when their flight seats form part of any “holiday package” sold, not just within their own holiday divisions. Only the CAA and Government can impose this, however.

The CAA’s proposed solution will simply push customers into buying cheaper “unprotected” holidays via the web or from travel companies domiciled in other European countries, not governed by the same excessive regulation that the CAA are seeking to impose on UK travel companies.

I fully support the CAA’s core aims, of speeding up customer refunds and restricting travel companies from funding their day-to-day operations from customer’s cash, since as an industry we have seen a lot of “Naked swimmers” as the Covid-19 tide has gone out.  

However, the CAA’s current proposals will just further tilt the unlevel travel playing field to an extent that only the largest OTA’s can take the working capital hit, reducing customer choice in this sector.  It will also effectively force high street agents to sell a much narrower range of bonded holidays, reducing both customer choice and the number of holidaymakers overall protected by ATOL. Neither of which should be the aim of the CAA.

This consultation is misguided and frankly highly dangerous, so please pay attention and resist its implementation.

Where will we work in the future?

Like many people, my working week has changed dramatically due to Covid-19 lockdowns.

My weekly commutes from Manchester to London, to spend 3 days a week in the offices of my various business interests have stopped and I now wonder if they ever need to start again.

We have all adapted to breaking our days into hour-long blocks and slotting in Zoom/Teams video calls to deal with specific business topics. Ironically, this has made it easier for my investments to access my time and advice, exactly when they need it, rather than when I can be in their area.

I have also found it much easier to pull together calls with the staff I need to drive a project forward, as coordinating hourly availability from people working from home seems to be 10 times easier than trying to do the same in an office environment.

Perhaps we have all got better at time management when you know the next call starts precisely in an hour and you cannot dawdle over discussions. Alternately, it may be that key staff are spending less time out of the office commuting to external meetings, now these are also being handled by video.

Homeworking as a concept is now proven and many businesses are planning a mix of home and office working, with the balance between the two often dictated by average length of staff commutes. Having a strong mix of homeworking also greatly increases the ability to recruit talent from the whole of the UK and at times international locations.

Homeworking is here to stay for businesses in general and travel in particular.

Why operate restricted 9-5 pm opening hours in high street shops when these can easily be extended by rostering home working hours, to deal with admin or customer phone/video calls?

Post Covid-19 we know customers will want more human interaction during the booking process and just as importantly pre-departure, to provide any necessary reassurance or booking amendments. However, this can now be delivered from home using video conferencing tools, which allow screen sharing and enable staff to see customers reactions to holiday pitches, improving conversion.

Destination experts can now become “National Destination Specialist”, servicing leads for a destination, in a personal manner irrespective of where the customers are located in the UK, using video conferencing. Again, it’s just as easy to do this from home than a shop location.

Homeworking however does present its own unique but common issues.

Our houses were designed as living spaces, to support our lives outside of the work environment and often do not offer dedicated office space for one person working from home, let alone two or occasionally 4 when kids home tuition is factored in.

How many Zoom calls are made from kitchens or quiet bedrooms? Not exactly ideal work environments and ones that can easily blur the lines between work and home to an uncomfortable level.

I believe that soon business will be forced by their duty of care for staff, to carry out audits on “Homeworking Spaces” and start providing grants or financial assistance to improve them.

This is why I have already invested in one start-up business focused on the space, called “WAH Solutions” (WAH = Working at Home) which is delivering pre-built “Garden Office Pods”, that offer “plug and play” offices located in employees Gardens.

However, I’m also looking at the other end of the chain, at what the offices of the future may look like?

Zoom meetings may be adequate for “pure” business meetings, but how will businesses bond their management teams or build strong relationships with suppliers and customers moving forward?

I believe that there will be many more conferences and industry forums required, with the social aspects of doing business becoming forefront of mind.

Radically and slightly off the wall, we may even see pubs further evolve. We have already seen most become “hybrid” pub/restaurants, so what’s to stop inner-city pubs also offering branded office space.

Pubs could offer branded Booths or areas in the pub, that are rented by business for their staff during the day to make Zoom calls have small internal meetings or host supplier/customer meetings. Drinks may need to be restricted to coffee during working hours, but the same spaces could be used for social activities post-work, with staff and guests able to enjoy a beer together.

If you have not yet started drafting your plans for a work environment including home working, you may find your staff moving to a business that has as this aspect of the future is both clear and here.

The office may still be needed to drive innovation, spot the next young thing and create cohesion, but working out how to do this whilst keeping those who have enjoyed working from home happy and without the massive cost of a large office, needs to be a strategic objective for travel business during the next year

The big cash squeeze

Covid has left the travel industry’s finances in a perilous state, argues Steve Endacott

In the next 12 months, the UK travel industry faces the biggest squeeze on cashflow that I have seen in my 30-year travel career.

Many companies improved cashflows in summer 2020 by issuing Refund Credit Notes (RCNs) to be utilised in summer 2021, and had hoped for a rush of new bookings as we exited Covid-19 restrictions and outbound travel restarted from May 17.

This is still broadly the roadmap, but the industry is expecting a very limited number of destinations on the government’s ‘green list’, with the mass market Spanish, Turkish and Greek volume drivers likely to be classified ‘amber’.

Travelling to ‘amber’ destinations will be expensive in terms of testing, requiring an outbound PCR or lateral flow test, followed by another lateral flow test 72 hours before returning and three PCR tests in order to use the shorter five-day test to release scheme rather than isolate for the full 10 days at home.

Even with companies offering PCR tests for £60, this still equates to an extra £280 per person in testing costs alone. Customers who are already committed to a holiday may decide to pay the extra and travel, but will customers who have not booked yet?

My view is a firm no, and I’m predicting travel in May and June will only be about 15% of 2019 levels.

Jet2holidays, which has postponed its restart until June 24, seems to agree. To me, this is sensible as it allows the operator to deal with refunds now and prepare for a peak season starting July 1. From this date, I remain hopeful that the UK population will receive a vaccination bonus and travel to most major beach destinations for the school holidays and beyond.

However, I don’t expect the government will update the May 17 traffic lights destinations until June 30, creating uncertainty for airlines and ultra-late booking conditions, which I believe will suppress flight supply down to between 50 and 60% of 2019 levels.

So although summer 2021 may still happen, Refund Credit Notes remain a noose around the neck of many businesses’ working capital, squeezing available cash.

If travel does restart, then suppliers will have to be paid and, if not, customers will need refunding. So it follows that cashflows will be hit either way. Only new bookings improve cashflow and the volume of these is under serious threat.

Low deposit schemes mean summer 2022 bookings only deliver about 20% of the cash flow benefit of a late availability sale, so even a buoyant summer 2022 does not ease the cash squeeze.

It can be assumed that working cash will be lower than normal entering the quiet winter months, and this is likely to be when travel business failures peak.

The biggest squeeze on cashflows yet to impact is being imposed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which is tightening ‘trust fund’ rules markedly, with agents’ commission no longer payable until customers return under the new ‘golden trust’ we expect to be forced on the industry.

In September, the CAA will try to force mass market tour operators like Jet2holidays and easyJet holidays into the same trust fund structure already imposed on Tui. This will cause a massive squeeze on their working capital as their tour operating divisions will not be able to pay for flights on booking, with cash only released on customer return.

The big airlines clearly have better lobbying and power than most travel companies to fight this but, legally, the CAA is forced to operate a level playing field and it’s difficult to see how such a move can be avoided.

Debit and credit card merchant acquirers are also nervous about the travel sector, with some pulling out completely and others holding on to cash for longer as a buffer against potential refunds resulting from further Covid-19 disruption.

It may not be a ‘perfect storm’, but the Covid-19 pandemic has left the travel industry’s finances in a perilous state, with many factors creating a massive squeeze on the lifeblood of business, cash!

It’s not all doom and gloom, but we have a rocky ride ahead of us over the next 12 months as we try to ride out the big cash squeeze.

Is it selfish to go overseas on Holiday this year?

The Sunday Times at the weekend reported on a UKGov poll showing that 76% of people thought it worth sacrificing overseas holiday, to keep the UK unlocked.

So as an industry should we listen to our customers and supposed “Experts” to stay shut, irrespective of the financial damage done?

But when did it become an either/or in terms of overseas holidays or a safe UK?

Of course, if you ask customers a question phrased in this way, who wouldn’t vote to stay unlocked?

Where is the evidence that travel represents such a massive risk to a vaccinated population?

Sorry, but it’s not been presented and instead, we have just had scientific posturing and the usual “drip, drip, drip leaks” from Government officials. They are clearly trying to set public expectation, even though the full travel review will not be issued to the trade until the 12th of April.  Truly frustrating, given the devastating impact on forward bookings it’s had.

As an industry, we need to demand a “Risk-Based” approach with clear rules stating the criteria to be used in deciding risk levels and how destinations will be allocated to Green, Amber airbridges and Red no go zones.

Fortunately, the Government last summer recognised the need to operate airbridges at a destination/Island level, rather than illogically applying blanket countrywide rulings, when location like the Canaries are nowhere near Mainland Spain.

In my opinion, the best the industry can hope for in terms of short-haul travel is to keep the Balearic, Canaries and Greek Islands in green/amber zones, as it’s unlikely travel will be possible to mainland Europe if a third wave of Corona Virus continues to take route.

Few customers will want to travel to the destinations, where Covid restriction’s reduce restaurant or bar opening hours, as the whole point of a holiday is to escape and enjoy holiday life. The Governments biggest Covid travel policeman will be customers themselves.

Scientists tell us that a fist vaccination jab gives 65% protection, which increases to 90% after a second jab. As the UK has seen, increasing vaccinations levels dramatically reduces the death rate and the rate of Covid-19 spread.

Most holiday destinations will welcome UK customers with either a health passport showing 2 jabs or a negative PCR Test.

Using simplistic maths, if we take an average Vaccination protection of 75%, then 25% of customers carry some risk of infection and therefore it is important to limit Green destination to locations that have similarly low infection rates. However, imposing rapid flow tests 72 hours before return and again after 5 days of quarantine, should allow a much larger range of amber destination to go on sale, as the combination of vaccination and testing should provide a high degree of protection against importing Covid.

The Government righty fears Covid mutations resistant to Vaccination, however as demonstrated by the highly contagious Kent mutation, most aren’t resistant and like flu, we will have to amend the vaccination and continue to vaccinate the county against new strains each year.  

We cannot be locked down by a fear of the unknown when that unknown is going to be with us forever.

Politicians’ behaviour is driven by public opinion and if we allow Government to drive a fear led agenda without challenge, we will stay closed until at least August. It’s time to fight fear, with a “risk lead” approach using, logic and science, but balanced by economic damage.

As an industry, we need to remove the stigma of going on holiday being a “selfish” act, by embracing testing and minimal quarantine as the key ways to protect against imported Covid outbreaks. Expecting large amounts of “Green” airbridges requiring nothing more than a Vaccination passport is not realistic for Summer 21.

This summer, let’s be clear that overseas holidays are a “life or death” issue for large swaths of a travel industry that desperately needs some summer 21 cash to get through the dark winter ahead before we enjoy a travel bonanza in Summer 22.

The changing shape of the UK outbound holiday market in a post-Covid-19 world

The UK industry hopes to re-start its holiday programs this Summer, with optimist still hoping for May/June and realists predicting a July 21 restart, as UK restaurants and pubs re-open.

 However, “3 tests to travel” will remain a requirement, as will robust plans to deal with further disruption from new Covid-19 variants.

 This fear of further Covid-19 disruption is likely to hamper the re-start of “Dynamic Packaging” for some time, forcing agents to sell holidays from the large integrated tour operators like Tui, Jet2 and Easyjet Holidays, as these ATOL bonded principals take responsibility for all refunds or holiday amendments, if further Covid -19 disruption occurs.

 Large OTA’s like On the Beach, Love and Travel Republic have the scale required to secure cost-effective public liability insurance and can afford to self-Insure “Supplier failure cover” by using virtual credit cards to pay suppliers which allow relatively quick and easy reclaims.

 However, the dramatic reduction in the “public liability” market and the complete disappearance of “Supplier Failure Cover”, make Dynamic Packaging by high street shops or retail consortia much more expensive and higher risk.  Given an alternative, retails would much rather sell packaged holidays from third parties.

 Customers who have been hit by the need to cancel, rebook or shift holiday several times, are likely to return in greater numbers to high street agents or higher human interaction booking routes such as homeworkers.

 If the major tour operators are sensible, they should benefit from high street agents and homeworkers turning to them this summer, but I fear that an ultra-lite booking market and excess seats over demand, could easily lead to the majors blowing their new alliances by undercutting agents with lower online prices.

 Holiday prices will also have to increase, as a badly depleted ATOL fund, looks to reduce risk further via trust funds or charge larger per passenger fees where it can’t.

 The CAA is trying to push ATOL holders away from “Bonds” towards “Trust Fund Models” with varying degrees of restrictions on how funds can be released before customer return from holiday. The more restrictions an operator accepts, the lower the cost, with rumours flying around of ATOL fees of up to £20 per person if operators do not reduce the CAA’s perceived risk via trust funds.

 How this will impact low-cost airlines holiday divisions is not clear, as the dominant airline division will not be happy if it does not receive payment in full on booking. Like all negotiations, it’s a balance of power and the CAA would not want the airline to abandon selling packages in favour of encouraging more customers to DIY unbonded holidays.

 I think existing fully bonded “Specialist” operators that survive Covid closure and new entrant’s, such as the Russian backed “Biblio Travel”, initially a specialist to Cyprus, could grow rapidly if they package a wider range of destinations for agents and remain trade focused.

 Secondly, there is also the need for a large-scale trade “Flight Only” operator, as many agents will now shift to selling unbonded accommodation to customers and then after a delay of 24 hours, help them book the flight element, as an agent of a third party to avoid selling a “package”.  Bluntly, the cost and risk of “bonding” a package in a Covid-19 disrupted world, outweighs the extra margin, so many agents are asking “Why do it”?

 Obviously, Goldmedal is best positioned to continue to dominate the trade flight only sector, but it may need to start “brokering” seats on charter aircraft, operated by “downstream” airlines from places like Turkey.

 One airline that will definitely see less trade support from dynamic packaging retailers is Ryanair!

The UK travel trade has always had an uneasy relationship with Ryanair, but after the refund fiasco where Ryanair has clearly tried to send many agents bust, by refusing to refund agency made bookings, the relationship is now openly hostile on both sides.

 Summer 22 should see a strong return to early holiday sales, as pent-up demand is finally released, with fully bonded package operators likely to benefit the most, led by Jet2 Holidays and Easyjet Holidays dominating the “mass market” beach sector and supported by a larger range of “small to medium” sized specialist tour operators, as agents reduce “dynamic packaging” efforts in favour of lower-risk commissionable business.

 Whether Tui can struggle out from under its debt mountain, which looks likely to destroy its ability to operate “differentiated” holidays, is another question altogether.

 What is sure, is that the 2022 post-Covid-19 outbound holiday market, will look a lot different from the one we entered the crisis with

Ministers shouldn’t be telling us not to book summer holidays

Logic dictates that a large-scale outbound market is possible by July, says Steve Endacott

The government undoubtedly has a tough job of balancing saving of lives with economic damage and restrictions of freedoms. On the whole, I think they have done a good job and, like most people, am fully supportive of the current lockdown and ban on overseas travel.

However, I take great exception to ministers telling the public it is too soon to book an overseas holiday for this summer and saying that they are planning a British holiday to Cornwall.

Obviously a domestic break versus an overseas trip is an individual choice, but ministers are massively underestimating the pent-up demand for overseas travel and the reasons behind it.

Holidaymakers like to book well in advance, so they know they have holiday dates booked off work and, more importantly, something to look forward too. That has never been truer than in a Covid-19 world, where we have been in full or partial lockdown for most of the last year and most people have missed out on last year’s annual holiday abroad.

People choose overseas holidays over a UK staycation because they have a much better chance of getting a week of sunshine – and the cost of hotels, eating out and drinks are much better value. How many all-inclusive options that cater for a fixed holiday budget can you find in the UK? Not many.

The impact of Covid-19 has also increased the gap between the ‘haves’ and the have nots’.

If you’ve worked from home through lockdown on full salary, you will have greatly-enhanced disposable income to spend on holidays this year. The average saving level for this sector has risen sharply as spend on commuting, going out and buying clothes have all fallen. This should lead to a boom in more expensive “holidays of a lifetime” to exotic destinations, as people who have woken up to their own mortality start ticking items off their bucket lists, or decide to upgrade their holidays.

Conversely, many people have been furloughed and will have to budget even more carefully if they are to afford overseas holidays. This may lead to a boom in sales to cheaper destinations, like Turkey, or maintain sales of all-inclusive hotels which otherwise look set for a decline due to Covid-19 restrictions and increased delivery costs.

However, all this is irrelevant if the UK Government does not re-instate the ability to travel and also loosen current testing and quarantine rules.

We know that, by the end of February, the majority of the ‘at-risk’ sector of the UK population will have been vaccinated and, by the beginning of the summer holiday season, most over 50s should also be covered. Scientists tell us that vaccinating those two demographics should cut the death rate from Covid-19 by 90%.

Politicians’ policies are invariably based on what will get them re-elected, and therefore when the death rate is cut to 10% of current levels the pressure to move to a ‘living with Covid-19’ phase will become overwhelming.

In this phase, the balance swings to reducing economic damage and lifting restrictions on public freedoms, such as going on overseas holidays.

So, I expect holidays to start again in May 2021 – but inbound testing and quarantine restrictions imposed by the UK government not to be relaxed until July or August, in time to allow UK citizens to travel on mass during UK school holiday peaks.

Therefore, unless new strains overcome vaccinations, logic dictates that the UK government should allow us to go on an overseas holiday this summer. Even if ministers say it’s too soon to book.

But don’t assume all holiday destinations will be letting us in!

The majority of UK holidaymakers will still not have been vaccinated by summer 2021, and the UK may still be living with relatively high infection levels within younger people, who suffer less server symptoms, just as we live with flu.

As we know, Europe as a whole is behind the UK with its vaccination rollout, and some popular but poorer holiday destination such as Turkey may be even further behind and still in the ‘containment’ phase.

It is therefore likely that Covid-19 testing will remain a requirement this summer, with it unlikely that travel corridors removing the need for outbound and inbound testing are reinstated.

As I’ve said before, it’s crucial the cost of testing comes down – and access to government testing capabilities would help greatly. However, having extensively researched the private testing sector in recent weeks, it’s apparent that aggressive directional selling by the travel industry can dramatically push down testing prices, and I’m more relaxed this obstacle can be dealt with.

In my opinion, by July 2021 large scale overseas holidays will be possible – and we can start moving from survival to profitability as an industry.

But, like any Covid-19 prediction, the road to recovery remains fraught with risk due to unknowns.

January Travel Sales? The only certain thing is uncertainty.

Most industry observers are expecting January sales to be only 30-40% of traditional levels because although the news of a Vaccine is a massive boost to consumer confidence, too much uncertainty remains over the speed of the vaccine role out and access to low-cost testing to allow travel.

With hundreds of aircraft sitting on the ground and Jet Aviation Fuel being 37.8% cheaper year on year, flight capacity will return rapidly for Summer 21 once demand returns, creating an “Ultra Late” market for holidays. However, low-cost airlines models yield models are based on low early prices establishing solid load factors before the “lates Market” i.e. within 3 months of departure and natural caution is likely to lead to capacity remaining at 70% of 2019 levels. So less overseas holiday will be sold in 2021 compared to 2019 peak volumes.

Travel companies January marketing will have to change to reflect changes in the mix of customer types booking and the types of products demanded. However, there are so many variables at play, it’s hard to predict these changes with any certainty, requiring a “measure and react fast” policy.

A key impact cutting across all passenger types is the increased differential between the “Have’s” and the “Have Not’s”.

The impact of Covid-19 lockdown measures have not been felt equally across all industries or employment sectors. If you have been working throughout Covid-19, you will now have increased disposable income having spent less in lockdown and have a large number of holiday days left to use. However, many people have been furloughed or made redundant, making these customers unlikely to be in the holiday market this year.

There are a few trends that can be predicted however

Families. Traditionally, 60% of January sales come from families booking early to secure the right hotels during school holiday periods. With the costs of Covid-19 tests currently at £120 per person per test, it’s hard to see families booking in January, as the combined cost of inbound and outbound tests, in theory, could be as much as £960 per family, which is just untenable for a mass-market beach holiday.

Older customers. Ironically, this could be the first market to return to booking, as they have the greatest certainty of being able to get a vaccination and have been locked down the hardest over the last 9 months. Covid-19 has reminded us all of our own mortality and the importance of enjoying life while we are healthy enough to do so but apply this to an age group with the finances and time to travel and you can easily see surge in bookings from this sector. Cruise is the obvious beneficiary but watch out for growth in demand for destinations like Cyprus, Malta and Benidorm that have older customer profiles.

Couples. Test costs are lower and potentially bearable, so depending on economic circumstances this group should be willing to book and will make up a higher percentage of the reduced January booking levels.

Younger people. This sector remains the most Covid confident, as the health impacts are much lower, but their disposable income is lower and the need to book early is minimal. Why would they book in advance when they are being told that there will be plentiful late availability?

I personally believe that “Lockdown” levels may also impact consumer phycology and introduce a further potential regional impact on demand. If you are in Category 3 and cannot socialise with friends outside the house, in pubs or restaurants, you are a lot less likely to discuss holiday plans. Historically this has been a big driver in the “Dream” stage of deciding where and when to go. How often have you booked a holiday because you heard friends talking about their holiday plans?

Predicting changes in destination mix is equally hard, as the unpredictability of “Quarantine Corridors” is a nightmare for the travel industry and customers alike. Even with a reduced quarantine period of 5 days with a test, quarantine corridors will have a massive influence on demand and simply cannot be predicted with any certainty in advance. Therefore, it’s hard to predict what changes in destination mix we will see until January bookings start coming in.

However, it is likely that the demand for self-drive holidays and staycations will remain high again in Summer 21, given its unlikely that the majority of the holiday taking population will have been vaccinated by summer and Covid-19 avoidance may remain front of mind.

The phrase the “the only thing certain, is that nothing is certain” has never rang truer.

Vaccine Bounce. When will Travel see it?

The announcement that a Covid-19 Vaccine, will start being rolled out by Christmas gave airline shares a massive boost this week, with British Airways share price improving by 40%.

The city clearly sees this as the “beginning of the End”, which is great news for the Industry, but will customer confidence bounce as fast?

Early signs are positive with many retailers, particularly those in the luxury sector, reporting a strong surge in bookings as more affluent customers, with money in their pockets and frustrated by disrupted Summer 20 holiday plans, make up for lost time with early bookings so Summer 21.

However, I still fear that the demand for “mass market” beach holidays will not return until we can reassure customers over the availability and price of Covid-19 tests.

The focus for the first wave of vaccinations will be older people, the medically vulnerable and health workers. It is highly likely that the bulk of “package” holiday makers will not have access to a vaccine until the summer at earliest and even when they have, we still have no idea how “health passports” will be issued or accepted by other countries to allow entry without testing.

Therefore, I think the travel industries focus should remain on implementing a low-cost testing infrastructure.

As a board member of the ITT, I have been able to put forward a question to be asked during the house of Lords debate on travel this week. Basically, it is a request to allow holiday makers access to the Governments PCP testing stocks, if they are willing to pay a £25 fee to have a test prior to travel and one on return to shorten quarantine.

Most holiday destinations are following the example of Cyprus, Dubai and now the whole of Spain in requiring visitors to take a test within 72 hours of arrival.

The cheapest private test available currently cost £125 (Although, TUI customers have access to a negotiated bulk discount) and cost escalate rapidly if you need a “last minute” test, which by definition of the 72-hour rule prior to departure, is a major issue for holidaymakers.

A cost of £250 per couple or £500 per family is a massive deterrent to booking a holiday. I have no doubt that by the time we get to the summer the availability of testing will have increased and competition will have forced down “Rip off” pricing levels. But only the Government has the stocks required to give holiday makers the certainty of access they need to book in January with any confidence.

In reality few people under 50 are still scared of Covid-19 as the low death rates and the relatively mild impacts on people they know provides reassurance. However, many like myself, still have elderly parents or vulnerable friends that dictate a cautious behaviour set, as they cannot risk catching Covid-19 and passing it on.

Once these vulnerable groups have been vaccinated however, I expect the clamour for a return to a normal life, including overseas holidays will surge. At this point the acceptance of illogical blanket quarantine rules will also be heavily challenged.

Due to peer group pressure and social responsibility, I twice returned early this summer from holidays to avoid being quarantined for 14 days, even though I was returning to Rochdale which had a 10 times higher infection rate than the destinations I was returning from.

I’m not convinced the Government will convince me or anybody else to comply with these idiotic blanket rules once the vulnerable are protected, again leading to a surge in demand to get away.

Strong holiday demand for Summer 21 is coming, but I think it will be an ultra-late market still.

Is dynamic packaging worth it post Covid-19?

Extra profit does not justify the risk, says Rebound Consulting’s Steve Endacott

Although the large majority of Atol applications were renewed on September 30, it is noteworthy that 176 companies, or 20%, did not renew this time.

The expected sharp decline in the use of retail consortia Atols will, however, be less visible.

Readers may remember that I fought hard against Abta’s acceptance that flight-plus Atols should be replaced with full Atols for agents as part of the implementation in the UK of the European Package Regulations. I argued that, unlike traditional tour operators, travel agents did not control the airline supply and should not be held liable for the airlines’ actions as the Atol ‘principal’, or organiser of the package.

My fear at the time was that the financial risk the agent was being forced to take on was unreasonable, as the new rules – in place since 2018 – make them responsible for the replacement of any flight element of a package if an airline failed.

I felt it was illogical for customers to be able to buy unbonded holidays on the same flights using Google and accommodation providers like Booking.com, but as soon as a travel agent or homeworker was involved the transaction needed to be bonded. The extra cost, and risk, of agents bonding would make agents less competitive on price compared to customers DIY booking themselves, creating an even bigger unprotected market.

This disadvantage, in recent years, has been exasperated by what is bordering on an abuse of power by low-cost airlines in terms of the point of sale booking fees they impose on travel agents, but not direct customers.

For example, EasyJet demand a whopping £12 per person per return flight to book over their API, which amounts to £48 for a family of four. There is no technical reason for this charge as the cost of the fare when booking over an XML API is exactly the same as customers booking on a website.

In reality, the charge is aimed at making sure the airlines get a large chunk of the agents’ DP profit and at the same time make their own in-house tour operations, who don’t pay this fee, look more competitive on price.

EasyJet are not alone in this behaviour, with Jet2.com constantly changing its point of sale fee, seemingly based on flight demand. Ironically, this pushed a lot of agents to book flights with Ryanair, which has not provided a chargeable access point because it doesn’t recognise agents’ right to book flights and knows agents can screen scrape or manually book on their site.

Heavy use of Ryanair has backfired on many agents during the massive disruption caused by Covid-19, with Ryanair making it as difficult as possible for agents to reclaim monies for cancelled flights.

Ryanair has clearly prioritised direct refunds over the claims of customers who have booked via agents because when the customer loses patience they will recharge the merchant who cleared their card, so the travel agent and not Ryanair.

Agents who operate trust funds are faced with another major issue as trust fund rules state that customer funds cannot be released until the customer returns from holiday.

Historically, agents have used a combination of low-cost insurance policies and virtual cards, which provide reclaim protection, in order to pay low-cost carriers on booking. However, the insurance markets are no longer willing to back the financial security of any of the major low-cost carriers, because they believe the bigger you are the harder you’ve been hit by Covid-19. This leaves agents reliant on virtual cards and the recharge route which, although highly effective in the case of airline collapses such as Monarch and Thomas Cook, has been much slower in forcing refunds for cancelled flights.

Given the constant chopping and changing of FCDO advice and quarantine restrictions in summer 2020, the extra profit available from dynamically packaging probably does not justify the extra risk of agents using their own Atols in 2021. So expect a large surge in bookings for Jet2holidays, EasyJet Holidays and companies like On the Beach, who provide a bonded dynamic packaging platform via trade brand Classic Package Holidays.

Ironically, this may come at the expense of Ryanair, which may yet regret trying to close down travel agent operations since its poor customer service record makes it unlikely that holidaymakers will trust the airline with their full holiday booking.

So having been at the forefront of the growth of dynamic packaging, I am now forced to advice that for anybody but a large online travel agency, the risk may now be too great to make it worthwhile.