Like the rest of the travel industry my initial reaction to the Tunisia atrocity was one of shock, followed by reaching for the phone, to make sure the various companies I consult with had kicked their emergency response plans into top gear.
The TUI management team, along with their staff, must be congratulated for a superbly organised and rapid response in such difficult circumstance. Its impossible to know at this stage, but in my opinion TUI enhanced their brand perception with the UK public, because they made exactly the right key calls, by repatriating all guests who wanted to leave Tunisia immediately and allowing free amendment or cancellation to the end of the season. They also fielded their most senior team for UK PR purposes and deployed emergency teams in resort, to assist their guest in any way they could. It really was a well planned and executed response that the industry should be proud of.
Several commentators have pointed out in the press the differences between traditional tour operators and Online Travel Agents (OTAs in terms of how they are able to deal with incidents like Tunisia and to be fair most make highly valid points.
The major tour operators do indeed have a much greater degree of control over how they are able to protect their brand propositions, in crisis situations like the recent Tunisia attacks. Their greater levels of in-resort staff, infrastructure and the control over their airlines, are indeed key assets.
However, this does not mean that OTAs and dynamic packaging firms cannot learn from the major operators and follow their excellent example in terms of disaster planning. Most reasonable sized companies already had in place emergency teams compromising key personal, who would have instantly been contacted on Friday when the UK first became aware of the Tunisia atrocity and kicked into action.
In this particular case the customers directly impacted where Thomson’s, meaning the primary responsibility of OTAs was dealing with other customers in Tunisia as a whole and customers who where due to travel.
Therefore, the requirement was to instantly understand which airlines and bed bank suppliers an OTAs customers where booked with, in order to communicate their respective policies to customers, before the customers had time to react and contact the OTA. This is vital in terms of controlling inbound call volumes and allowing personalised proactive communication to customers, to compensate for OTAs key weakness in these situation. This is their inability to control policy, in order to be as customer centric as possible and the complexity of communicating differing policies that tend to change on a rolling departure date basis.
The lack of control over airlines amendment and cancellation policy is a key weakness in terms of protecting an OTA brand, but to be fair the OTA can hardly expect to take all the benefits that
Dynamic packaging gives them without some downsides. It is unlikely that airlines will take any notice of OTAs when setting policies, but pre-agreeing policies with bed banks or pressurising them for more sensible terms is completely achievable and something that could be improved I believe.
The impending “Greek Euro Exit” meant that most OTAs would have recently reviewed their emergency procedures prior to Tunisia, but I personally think that the sector would benefit from a central trade body of OTAs, where “best practice” could be shared and pressure exerted by joint buying power. Ideally this body would also include the major bed banks, to allow a more coordinated approach by the DP sector.
Should this body be a sub-set of ABTA or does the DP sector need to dust off the “Association of Travel Agents” framework, put in place for the failed fight to shape the European Package Regulations? I’m not sure, but Tunisia did highlight that more coordination is required.
One of the key benefit OTAs and dynamic packagers have over traditional tour operators is the flexibility that their “asset light” model gives them. For example I would not like to be TUI’s yield planner trying to work out were to move 20 plus flights from Tunisia to the end of the season. As well as the impact on demand posed by the seemingly inevitable Greek Euro exit, initial post Tunisia sales indicate customers are also showing concern about booking holidays to Egypt, Morocco and to a lesser extent Turkey, because of their perceived closeness to ISIS strong holds. Hopefully this may prove to be just a short-term blip for these great destinations.
Being able to play a wait an see game at such crucial juncture, may be the key asset enjoyed by dynamic packaging OTAs, that outweighs the clear advantages the major integrated groups have in terms of protecting their brands in times of crisis. Personally, trying to get the best of both worlds needs to an something the whole OTA community would benefit from working together on.