The dangers of a travel “Super Brand”

The recent TV and press coverage surrounding the mass cancelling of flights by various UK airlines due to staff shortages as travel restarts after Covid-19 disruptions, reminded me of the arguments for and against travel Super Brands.

 Back in 2002 the Airtours Group, decided that it was time to bring together its Going Places travel agency chain, Airtours tour operation and MyTravel airline under one super brand called MyTravel and ever since other travel groups have been following suit.

 The “Vertically” integrated model was born in the 1990s as the battle for high street distribution heated up. Three of the big four tour operators, due to the dominance of Thomson’s owned “Lunn Poly” shop network, decided to buy, and build their own chain of high street agents. This gave them guaranteed distribution and the ability to trade sales of competitors’ products in their shops, for sales of their tour operations in that competitor’s outlets.

 At the time the branding of the retailer was left independent of the tour operator, because it was felt that to be cost-effective the shop needed to serve all the needs of the local community, selling a wide range of holiday companies to maximise commission, whilst “directionally selling” to its inhouse tour operations. This also meant it had plenty of stock to sell in the “lates” market, in the unlikely case that its own tour operator had sold well and had little left to sell.

 Each division of integrated groups operated its own “Profit and Loss” account and not surprisingly initially far too much effort was spent on internal arguments about commissions, until “Matrix” earnings were introduced at a Group Level. Simply put, the retail division needs to believe that its highest commissions came from its in-house tour operation e.g., 15% and the tour operator regards its in-house shops as its cheapest distribution e.g., 10%. Clearly, an impossible task before David Crossland introduced a matrix group subsidy that consolidated out in top-level accounts.

 Similar arguments also existed between the tour operator and the airline division, which was often used as the “Bank”, with the tour operator being deliberately overcharged for seats compared to market rates, to ensure that they did not discount profits away. Not surprisingly the bank/ airline normally won any arguments.

 The motivation for the creation of a single “Super Brand”, stretching across tour operation, airline, and retail shops, was always the “brand synergy” that it created, with one TV campaign benefiting all divisions and customers being surrounded by a coherent and always present branding experience.

 The biggest opposition to the “Superbrand” came from the high street shops who feared for their commercial survival if customers believed they only sold in-house tour operations. In hindsight, they may have been right as the shrinking of in-house shops has been much faster than independents on the Highstreet, however, this argument is blurred by the growth of the lower-cost internet which clearly suited single brands.

 It was international expansion that finally finished the debate at Tui. How could Tui continue to retain the massive legacy Thomson Brand in the UK whilst bringing together all its other international brands under the common Tui Branding?

 Although this was initially resisted by the UK management team, they eventually yielded and the transition from Thomson’s to Tui was completed in an incredibly short period with minimal damage to its market position. I think however that this was mainly due to the strength of the “Exclusive and differentiated” hotel stock that Tui controlled, and the weakness of its biggest competitor Thomas Cook.

 The biggest fear of creating a “super brand” was that one of the group’s aircraft might crash crashing and potentially destroy the brand overnight.

 Thankfully this has never happened, but how much brand damage has cancelling 36,000 holidays due to  “operational” issues at the airline,  done to the Tui super brand in the UK.

 Travel requires a massive amount of “Brand Trust” as buying a holiday is one of a customer’s highest annual purchases, where effectively all they receive on booking is an email and/or paperwork promising to deliver the holiday in the future.

 Covid-19 has already damaged customers’ confidence in this “promise” with credit note refunds, but how much worse is large scale holiday cancellations?

 Tui will rightly argue that 36,000 holidays is a small fraction of its overall carryings, but cancellation is a major breach of the holiday promise and these disappointed customers are unlikely to book with Tui again, However, I fear that the “halo” impact of the widespread TV and press coverage could create a 50 times multiplier impact, creating 3.6m passengers who will hesitate to book Tui next year.

 Whatever the actual level of brand impact, the last thing the Tui Tour Operation needs is brand damage at a time when it has also lost a large amount of its exclusive stock. The large debt mountain Tui was forced to take on board during Covid-19, needs to be paid down by further rights issues of shares and this can only be done when sales and profits return to pre-Covid levels.

 This latest brand damage will push back further the date that this vital refinancing can occur.

 In the meantime, a shortage of working capital has forced Tui to reduce its hotel pre-payments dramatically, leading it to lose many of the exclusive hotels that created its “differentiated” product, creating a negative virtual spiral and leaving Tui competing head-to-head with Easyjet and Jet2 holidays in the “commodity” beach holiday market. A battle I think they may lose.

 I remain highly confident that Tui with its long history of holiday excellence and strong management, can trade out of this current situation, but they cannot continue to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot.

 I’m sure there will be some interesting internal debates regarding compensation between operating boards, but it’s all irrelevant compared to the prospering of the Super Brand itself.

 All I can say is good luck Tui, I genuinely wish you well as the last man standing of the original big four tour operators.

Travel to Barbados in a post-Covid-19 world.

How quickly do we forget the sheer hassle of Covid-19 protection in the UK?

 Facemasks have disappeared, the NHS Covid App remain untouched on our phones and when’s the last time you took an Antigen test to enter an event.  However, not everywhere in the world has recovered to the same pace as the UK, where triple vaccination and a mild, but dominant Omicron variant, have reduced the impact of Covid to little more than a bad cold.

 The fear has gone and with it a lot of our tolerance for any Anti-Covid measures.

 Visiting Barbados on holiday this week, it was clear that most UK holidaymakers simply did not comply with local laws requiring masks to be always worn in public spaces. The general attitude appeared to be “We are on holiday, and this is bullshit”.

 How quickly we forget our own lockdown measures and caution to protect the vulnerable in our society. Barbados continues to have shortages in Vaccine supply and suffered from a lot of misinformation about vaccine safety, which led to only 53% of the population being vaccinated.

 Like many destinations, tourism is the lifeblood of the economy and lockdown hit pockets hard in Barbados, making the welcoming back of tourists essential. This has left the country facing a tricky balancing act between public safety and removing enough restrictions to attract tourists from the USA and UK where all restrictions have been lifted.

 Ironically, I think the requirements to wear masks will put UK customers off travelling to a destination more than the extra costs of outbound lateral flow tests, although the fear of being randomly tested at entry and forced to stay in a quarantined hotel for the duration of your stay definitely creates some booking fear.

 Could we see future booking patterns being influenced indirectly by a country’s vaccination status?

 Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding yes, as we are bound to see new Covid-19 variants develop this coming Winter, forcing greater restrictions is destinations with more exposed populations.

 Barbados as a destination retains its ultra-laid back and friendly vibe, which combined with beautiful beaches and sunny skies make it both a favourite winter and summer sun destination. However, like most destinations, it is struggling to deliver previous standards after the Covid disruption.

 We stayed at the 4-star Boutique “House Hotel”, which recently became part of the Elegant Resorts Group. The hotel had excellent historic review scores when it has been a Bed and Breakfast hotel situated next to the world-famous Daphne’s Restaurant. However, during Covid Daphne’s shut down and the hotel even though it did not have its own kitchens turned into an “All Inclusive” hotel, using the facilities of nearby group hotels to add a range of food options to the simple buffy focused food served on site.

 This concept may eventually work, however, while the hotel continues not to have a front desk but relies on “Ambassadors” i.e staff multi trained to serve all roles, things can go horribly wrong. In our case, it was being turned away from other group hotels because restaurant bookings had failed to be made or laundry disappearing for days. This combined with some truly inedible food being served up during our first two nights, lead to a complete “toys out of the pram” meeting with the management team.

 Fortunately, the House has experienced top management able to accept the situation and put in place a recovery plan that got the holiday back on track, which when combined with their friendly staff created a great overall experience, which saved the brand’s credibility.

 For me, it just shows how hard our industry will have to work as we come out of Covid to meet the expectation that the prices we are used to charging generate.

 Which hotels will reduce their prices, because they have brand new chefs or service teams not used to serving in 4/5-star hotels? Will discounts be given for rooms that have not seen a lick of paint during the Covid-19 shutdowns?

 With the industry desperate for recovery cash, the answer is clearly no. This means the expectation gap this summer is likely to be bigger than ever and with reviews/social media easily accessible on all holiday phones, we are likely to see hard built reputations destroyed during this first recovery season.

 As they say, it is not just preventing errors, but how they are recovered that really impacts a hotel’s band, so a big thank you for a great holiday to the House’s staff and Elegant Hotels team.

Yield! Don’t give margin away unnecessarily.

Travel companies are reporting surging demand and a 30% increase in average prices for Summer 22 sales. The dam of pent-up holiday demand has clearly broken and its vital that travel companies hold these higher prices, rather than chase volume and compete them away.

 Customers are clearly upgrading their holidays using “Covid Savings” and spending more after a long absence of holidays from their lives.

 Fortunately, this results in better quality hotels and “safer” destinations being selected, with Spain bouncing back much faster than value destinations like Turkey. This is good news as I expect much higher complaint levels, from the “cheaper” end of the hotel market, which has seen zero investment over the last 2 years and will be even more tired.

 Covid-19 disruption could reappear from nowhere as we saw with the Omicron Variant, so expectation as to what is an acceptable margin needs to increase for both retailers and tour operators alike.

 The best insurance policy a holidaymaker can take is using the expertise of travel agents to find suppliers with flexible covid terms and/or booking an Atol bonded package where the operator is taking responsibility for all disruption. This has value and must come at a cost, so agents just need to look the customer in the eye and say, “No discount”.

 OTA’s may not be able to look the customer in the eye, but customer “intent” can still be read from how they progress through a site and used to yield prices to maximise returns.

 Travel does not have “Magic Circle” rules banning its members from revealing its yield tricks, so here are my top 10 favourites.

 1. Price by source of traffic.

Customers naively believe that the price they see on a website is the price everybody sees. This is not the case with modern websites, which cache basic prices and then overlay different markup levels depending on the source of traffic. The OTA then cookies the individual computer to maintain these prices if the customer then returns from a different source to make these games invisible to the individual unless they change device.

o  Price comparison sites. A few pence make a difference in the display order here and so OTA’s apply their lowest markups. However, as soon as customers move away from the selected hotel they have clicked through to, margins jump back up on alternate hotels. If the customer adds flights these also carry a higher-than-normal margin as the OTA seeks to regain the reduced margin needed to attract clients from price comparison sites.

o  Hotel name on google. Less competitive than price comparisons, but margins are lower than if the customers enter the site at a destination level, as they are deemed to be closer to booking and more price-sensitive having done extensive research.

o  Destination level. Here the OTA boosts margins via “Merchandising” best-selling hotels to the top of the search results, controlling what is sold to a greater degree.

 2. Lead Flight prices.

Flight prices are much easier for customers to cross-check than 100’s of individual hotels. Lead flight prices set customers impression of price competitiveness and carry the lowest markup, however, these flights tend to have the worst flight times and customers often chose better flight times, so monitoring clicks and applying higher margins to these popular flights is vital.

 3. 60% off messages.

UK trading standards rules state that prices must have been valid for 30 days ahead of the start of any discounts and must apply to a “reasonable” volume of holidays. To create headline discount messages OTA’s simply raised prices on hotels they don’t often sell by 60% for 30 days and then discount them, allowing headline-grabbing messages, that drive the sales of better selling hotels where the price has never moved.

 4. Split flights.

Combining an outbound flight from one airline with an inbound from another is key in keeping OTA’s competitive against low-cost carriers in house tour operations like Jet2. It gives the OTA a better range of flight times and allows them to break the yield management of airlines, who know that 80% plus of customers choose 7night durations and apply a higher flight markup to these combinations via higher inbound flight pricing.

 5. Buying inbound flights in Euros.

UK based low-cost carriers’ price in sterling and convert to Euros, apply 2-3% currency buffer. It is often £3-4 cheaper per flight for OTA’s to buy seats on the airline’s euro site and combine them with sterling outbounds.

 6. Admin fees on deferred payment schemes.

Most OTA’s prices are based on paying a deposit and balance 4 weeks before departure on booking. However, many now offer monthly payment options that attract “admin fees” of £2.50 per payment, that are cleverly hidden and often remain unnoticed by customers but boost booking markings by £15.00 per booking. The key here is that this extra £15 never appears in the lead advertised price on the site and it sometimes allows OTA’s to cut margins even further based on the percentage of customers taking these schemes.

 7. Repeat visits/booking.

Ryanair over 10 years ago started dropping cookies on customers computers that added £10 to flight prices if the customer repeated a search within 24 hours, as this indicated strong purchasing intent. Few customers ever noticed, but even today I still search on a laptop but book on a phone to stop airlines playing this game.

Insurance companies have been banned by “treating customers fairly” FSA rules, from charging loyal customers more than new customers. Interestingly these rules do not apply to travel yet and many OTA’s apply higher margins if customers are entering their site from email marketing to previous customers, as these are deemed more likely to book having booked previously with the brand.

  8. Misleading competitor price checks.

Bed banks and hotel only OTA’s, deploy considerable resources to scanning competitor prices to adjust their own margins to fractionally undercut them, in a penny matters XML supply marketplace.

Historically, these price checks tended to be overnight scans and could be “cheated” by reducing price for the peak evening booking period between 6 pm-9 pm and then reverting to higher prices at night when scanning occurred. Monitoring usage activity by account login to look for tell-tale signs of scanning, also allowed competitors scanners to be “fed” false higher prices, but these needed to be randomised by hotel to avoid detection by manual checks.

Both have now been stopped by countermeasures, but it remains a game of chess, but with big volume gains if you can successfully fool competitors’ price scanners.

 9.  Ignoring competitor prices

The most profitable UK OTA completely ignores competitor pricing and focuses purely on its own conversion levels.

When the conversion levels drop for a destination below the site’s historical average, this is deemed to indicate that its prices are uncompetitive, and margins overall are reduced. This sounds extremely simple but is operated at a micro-level, with adjustments by flight route, destination, resort, hotel, and date range being constantly made. Pricing your customer pipe “live” using click intent is the closest any OTA has got to looking a customer in the eye and knowing what they will pay.

 10. Ancillary sales.

It amazes me and frustrates me as an investor in the CannyApp FX product how little focus travel agents or OTA’s put on upselling their customers with ancillaries such as Foreign Exchange, where they can earn an Extra £35 per customer or other lower margin extras such as car parking, car hire, lounges, or fast pass security/customers vouchers. Having, already covered their marketing costs with the core holiday sale the profit, from sales of these items falls straight to the bottom line and in a marketplace where margins are always under pressure, they must be the future.

 As an industry, we have a once in a lifetime chance to reset the bar or what is acceptable margin for our labour, so let’s please take it.

Cuba. On the Edge!

Visiting Cuba this week was a massive reminder of how important Tourism can be to many holiday destinations.

 Cuba is clearly on the brink of economic oblivion.

 The Trump administration back in June 2019, cut the lifeline of American Cruise lines depositing 6,000 trophy hunting Americans, that had been banned from visiting Cuban for 50 years, on its shores each day. Nobody in Cuba understands why their communist ethos, suddenly became unacceptable to the USA again or what would need to occur to earn a reprieve.

 As with many Cruise ship destinations, some locals regarded Cruise tourists as low value “ice-cream” eaters, who did not stay in local hotels and returned to the giant cruise ships each night to eat their meals. Crucially, however, the cruise tourist kept local clothes retailers and supermarkets well stocked, with the hard currencies they spent, used to fund Cuban food imports, given few people outside Cuba will accept the currency.

 Remove the Cruise customers and three years later virtually every cloth shop and tourist venue in Havana has closed making it a shopping ghost town, with few places to eat and drink. The lack of hard currency to buy imports is also causing major food shortages, with locals having to queue 6 hours a day to just secure the basics required for living.

 Although Cuba still feels relatively safe, it’s clearly teetering on the edge and its uncomfortable for well feed tourists to be constantly passing long queues of locals gathered outside every open shop in town. What was a must-do 2–3-day visit to Havana has now shrunk to a 1-day culture vulture tour, for some of the UK tourists visiting the beaches of Varadero.

 The lack of hard currency has also left an uncomfortable situation for tourists, where the back market exchange rate for the Cuban Peso is 120:1 pound, but the official tourism rate set by the Government is 30:1. So exchanging paper money gives 4 times the power of using a credit or debit card. So for once, my CannyApp FX card was left in the wallet as even I could not “Canny it” and save money.

 Not surprisingly, the biggest money local earner is exchanging tourist money. The first thing the Tui rep focused on during the inbound coach trip to the resort was getting their newly arrived guest to change £20 each into Pesos at a 1:60 rate. Potentially a good deal for the tourist compared to hotel prices, but clearly a better deal for the rep.

 This same sense of constant manipulation follows tourists everywhere in Cuba, with only the brave being willing to exchange cash on the streets and most looking for trusted intermeddles which are few and far between, as even most respectable Cubans are looking to grab as much hard currencies as possible ahead of an imminent economic collapse, they all seem to be expecting.

 Our Tui Dream liner was completely full of happy inbound tourists, and many will have had great holidays in Varadero having not left their All-Inclusive complex’s but is this sustainable or responsible tourism?

 The hard currency they deliver to the Cuban economy is vital to its economic survival, but questions remain over how long this can continue, as the average occupancy hotel is 12% or lower, making staffing and maintenance of hotels a real challenge.

 The impact of the Covid-19 shut down is everywhere, with even supposedly 5-star hotels looking tired and in need of repair, reducing them to 3-star equivalents. Unfortunately, as the tourism world emerges from Covid-19, I’d expect the same situation to exist in numerous previously popular destinations, such as Egypt, Gambia, and Morocco to name a few, which brings into question exactly how we define responsible tourism.

 Personally, I think it’s vital that we support countries like Cuba and help them through their crisis, but this will require travel businesses to remove the rose-tinted photos from websites and fully educate their customers on what they can expect for their hard-earned holiday money. It clearly goes further in places like Cuba but comes with some caveats.

 Customers also need to take a hard look at review sites, since average hotel scores, including pre-covid ratings, may often be misleading about the current situation. Even travel powerhouses like Spain are finding it difficult to persuade their population to return to hospitality jobs, making maintaining service levels hard as tourism returns. The travel agent “knowledge” network has never been more important to recommend the right destinations to customers.

 The future of travel is clearly bright again, but we will be faced by many new obstacles as travel re-emerges with short-term travel likely to be dominated by those destinations who can get their infrastructure working normally the quickest.

 In my opinion, this is likely to be Spain, Greece and potentially Turkey although it also has its own economic challenges.

 I love to travel but maybe more cautious in my choices for a while.

Avoid addiction to Margin killing Google Search.

As travel search-demand restarts, the bid costs for all major Google search terms are already rocketing, as travel companies compete to build back their bid histories and dominate the top of search results.

 Now I must confess to some history of Google bashing having launched a customer referral scheme 12 years ago called “Google Bypass”. Not surprising an expected lawsuit quickly followed and we had to revert to the less controversial “Share and Earn” band.

 However, my key issue with Google remains.

 Although Google is clearly “Not Evil”, its perfect information and bidding algorithms, have facilitated the travel industry in competing away virtually all its booking margins, with Google estimated to be taking 90% of all commissions earned.

 Finding alternative routes to customers and maximising database, use has never been more important. Here are my 5 tips for reducing reliance on Google.

 1.  Friend get Friends schemes.

Often the best advocates for a holiday, are customers who have already booked it since they have been through the research process and have selected your company’s product based on quality and price.

However, how many companies then use these potential advocates to bring other couples or families on the same trip or incentivise them upon return to recommend the trip to other people? Few in my experience.

 It is important to get the basic’s rights

·      Linked bookings. Lead customers do not want to take responsibility for paying for other people’s holidays and therefore don’t want to add passengers to a booking as most systems allow, but want to create a new booking linked to the original.

·      Incentives. People do not like making money from friends. The incentive, therefore, needs to be either shared or paid to the friend. For example, one of CannyApp partners is offering “£75 Holiday money” loaded on the card, as a booking incentive to the secondary bookers, so that they can take the friends who recommended the holiday out for a meal on holiday.

·      Make claiming simple. Complex schemes don’t work so make it easy to claim an incentive.

 “Friend gets Friend” schemes normally result in a direct secondary booking avoiding commission, but sensible operators will also consider rewarding the originating travel agent.

 2. Long tail Satellite TV advertising.  

The exponential growth in the number of satellite TV channels has led to many channels not having the minimum number of viewers to even charge for showing an advert. Campaigns across these “Long Tail” channels therefore can often deliver 40-50% of free adverts, reducing the average cost per view and lead generated.

 But why would you want to advertise on channels with few viewers? Well, it’s the same principle as “long tail” google advertising. Even though volumes are low, if channels are cheap and are seen by the key housewife market they can work.

 For example, children’s or old films channels often deliver the best cost per lead, as the adverts can be more interesting than the programs for housewives who have them on as background noise or to keep kids happy. The move to home working has also increased response levels from Music channels, often played as background noise, with interesting travel adverts grabbing attention.

 Historically, high TV production costs prevented smaller companies from exploiting direct response TV, but productions costs have dropped dramatically, with adverts using stock video footage costing as little as £2,500, allowing introductory campaigns from £10k, although a campaign covering several months will cost £30k plus.

 Even small travel businesses often spend £60k per month on Google advertising and satellite TV delivers a large Halo “as seen on TV” boost to brand confidence-boosting google CTR’s.

 3. Nested Email Services producing personalised emails.

Too many travel companies pump out weekly “Deal” emails, which quickly get dismissed as irrelevant by customers.

Sophisticated email systems focus on just getting a customer to visit the company’s website so that the customer’s search behaviour can then be used to produce increasingly focused personalised emails.

 If a customer searches for a Tenerife holiday departing in May from Gatwick, then the next email will offer only Tenerife or similar destinations, until their next click to the site gives more information about the board basis or hotel they are looking for.  Nested “if they” email databases are not rocket science.

 A company’s database of previous bookers is one of its most valuable assets, but many travel companies abuse it with boring and non-relevant content. Personalised emails are 10 times more effective.

 4. Use the “Travel Data Lake” to add value.

Only 1 in 100 customers visit a site book, giving you full contact details, and entering your customer database.

 However, 68% of customers complete a search indicating their broadly holiday requirements. Research shows that in 78% of cases, the customer sticks within +/- 3 days of the holiday date originally searched and 92% don’t change departure airport.

 Why not cookie these customers to allow, the advertising of travel ancillaries such as Foreign Exchange, insurance, or airport parking during the key 28 days before they depart using retargeting adverts via Google or Facebook.

 The customer may not buy a holiday from your company this year, but if you sell them a holiday ancillary, you’re adding them to your marketing database for next year holidays and cutting Google costs.

 Cookie use is becoming hard via Apple devices, but can still be exploited via Android platforms so make the most of this opportunity while it lasts.

 5. Ask your customers about their last 5 years of travel?

Travel companies tend to be internally focused and don’t spend enough time trying to understand what other travel products their customers buy during a year or in a longer holiday cycle. Simply ask them, as many customers are happy to tell you!

 This information can be invaluable in understanding future destination booking patterns as customers often return on a cyclical basis to old favourites.

 It is also useful for creating “look-alike” Agent profiles when selling via Highstreet agents or homeworkers.

Create “most likely to sale” profiles, based not just on the sales of your company’s products, but on the sales of competitors you know the customer also books e.g., Kuoni Longhaul sales may indicate a potential Cruise booker.

 Whether you consider my tip 5 tips useful or not, any sensible travel company must avoid being a “Google” junkie and diversify their customer acquisitions strategies. Otherwise, the only winner from the travel rebound will be Google.

The Covid-19 Evolution. Who will be the winners?

The Covid-19 has hit the travel sector, harder than virtually any other UK business, with UK lockdowns being followed by the shutting of international borders, which combined with the imposition of testing and extra paperwork, devastating short term consumer confidence.

However, this week Government announcement removing Covid-19 testing appears to mark the “Beginning of the End” for Covid travel restrictions, with the UK leading the way in learning to live with Covid.

The future of travel looks bright but may require a re-think of how things are done.

For example, Summer 2022 is set to be driven by last-minute bookings 4-5 weeks before departure, as customers who have been hit by a barrage of disruption over the last 2 years remain cautious about booking early.

Low-cost carriers yield models will quickly adapt, even without historical comparators, because putting prices up based on the rate of sale, has never been rocket science. However, driving frequency of rotations on routes will be much more of a gamble, often resulting in flight consolidations and further customer disruption.

Leaving aircraft sat on the tarmac, is likely to continue to be a requirement this summer, as airlines chase yield over volume. Beach destinations with their longer average flight times and earlier booking profiles, will look more attractive compared to city routes, leading to holiday capacity returning faster.

Don’t be surprised to see a big expansion of Easyjet Holidays on the back of increased trade distributions, bought with attractive commission levels. Letting Jet2 Holidays dominate trade distribution has been a historic strategic error, that current Easyjet CEO Johan Lundgren with his tour operating background, will not allow to continue.

Tui’s market share is likely to suffer as their airline does not have the same economies of scale as Jet2 or Easyjet, giving it a higher cost base in the commodity holiday market they are being forced to enter now that Covid-19 has severely disrupted their “differentiated” product.  Tui’s strong brand and reputation for customer service may counter this price disadvantage in the short term, but their debt mountain is one of the biggest in the sector, meaning that long term decline seems inevitable.

High street agents need to evolve rapidly, as Covid-19 has pushed more shoppers online, reducing footfall and making profitable operations very hard, as demonstrated by the Hays Travel £39 loss last year and estimated on-going £2m a month losses. Unprofitable shops need to be shut rapidly, all leases renegotiated, and local counsels pushed to accept that current “business rates” are unsustainable.

How quickly all this will occur, remains open to doubt, but I believe that within the next 2 years, high street shops, acting as hubs for local homeworkers will be the model of choice in the “personal service” travel sector. These hubs will incorporate video conferencing, such as Zoom, as a normal selling process due to its consumer convenience, allowing customers to be walked through online content whilst in the comfort of their own homes and for agents to see consumer reactions, markedly improving conversions.

Personalised travel services don’t have to be delivered face to face anymore and, in a post, Covid-19 world why would staff ever again want to sit waiting in a shop for customers to walk through the door when they can drive their own appointment diary and enjoy the benefits of working from home.

However, if as expected the cost of high street shops is reduced dramatically, because of the lack of demand, having a high street location still makes a lot of sense.

Combining a local homeworking network with a Highstreet shop could offer the best of both worlds. The shop could drive brand awareness and therefore consumer trust, whilst providing a professional administration centre and a point of customer introduction via walk-in traffic. It simply needs to be staffed on a rotational basis and have longer opening hours via homeworkers and video support.

Online Travel Agents (OTA’s) also need to adapt their models,  making “Amending” bookings just as easy a process as booking in the first place. Although OTA’s don’t control their flight supply, the increased flexibility offered by airlines can be passed on electronically and customer portals for self-amendment have never been more important.

OTA’s also need to step into resort with customers, providing relevant added-value services whilst on holiday. These will primarily be delivered via apps but could also be supported by branded Foreign Exchange cards, offering preferential exchange rates and cashback deals on local products.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly reshaped the travel environment and it’s the businesses who recognise this and adjust the quickest who will be the winners.

Will your business be one of them?

Health V National Wealth: Why Lockdown to protect people who won’t protect themselves?

During the first lockdown, I accepted all restrictions on my rights to work, mix and travel as I recognised the need to protect the vulnerable in the absence of a vaccine.

 11 months on from the first vaccines and with over half the country “Triple Vaccinated”, I think it’s time to ask, “Who are we locking down to protect and is the economic cost worth it?”

 I accept the right of the individual, even when faced with sound medical research showing the benefits of vaccines, not to take them. For a few, there are medical reasons why they cannot be Vaccinated, but for many, it’s a choice. However, we live in a democracy and when 85% of the population have been vaccinated, government policy should be based on the needs of the vast majority, which means no further lockdowns and a policy of living with Covid-19.

 More controversially what happens if Hospital wards do become overrun? Should the vaccinated take priority over the unvaccinated? My humanity says “no”, but cold logic says “should there not be some consequences?”

 Living with Covid-19 will need some changes to the “Norms”, for example carrying around Covid-19 passes for entry to certain locations.

 Having returned last week from a Ski Trip in France, where all entry to pubs and restaurants requires the presentation of a “Passe Sanitaire” proving your fully vaccinated status, I must question why the UK Media finds this a breach of our rights. Sorry, but I think it’s my right to demand that people I’m mixing within enclosed spaces are as safe as possible for my personal health.

 Similarly, I think it is reasonable to ask people who are going to sporting events or travelling on holiday to take a low-priced lateral flow test. This provides reassurance and an increased likelihood of a Covid-19 free environment.

 However, I do object to being differentiated against and made to feel guilty by our government just because I want to travel.

 Why should travellers not be able to use “Free” NHS lateral flow or PCR tests whilst travelling overseas, when it’s free to use these services if you want to go to a music or sporting event? As stated, many times, even if these tests are not free, the Government is best positioned to provide low-cost testing at around £12.50 per lateral flow and £22.50 for PRCs which cover costs and generate a small profit for the NHS.

 Given the Omicron infection rate in the UK, I am more likely to catch Covid-19 from visiting a local pub, restaurant, or supermarket than whilst travelling. So, what is the logic of insisting travellers returning to the UK must quarantine for 2 days and take a further PCR test? Where is the scientific evidence that people returning to the UK have a higher infection rate than the domestic population? The simple answer is that there is none, but hitting travellers is an easily visible action when politicians want to be seen to be doing something.

 The Government has announced a £1 Billion package to help hospitality and leisure businesses to survive the coming lockdown which is likely to take effect from Dec 27th, 2021. However, although the assistance to hospitality locations of £6k is clear, it’s very unclear how or what leisure business can claim.

 Although any assistance is welcome, it’s a drop in the ocean and not enough to stop the wholescale shutting of high street travel agents and the failure of many tour operators, particularly those in the Ski sector.

 The only thing that can save the UK travel sector is the rapid spread of Omicron in a triple vaccinated population where the latest research shows it has a mild impact, with the unvaccinated being locked down to protect them. Not locking down the whole population is the right choice for our Economic Wealth as a country and gives the travel industry a chance of a summer holiday season, assuming other holiday destinations take the same approach.

Sorry if this blog offends, sounds selfish and is treats travel as a priority when it’s clearly not for all. However, travel has provided my living for virtually all my working life and if we don’t fight hard the UK outbound travel sector could easily be destroyed by another lengthy Covid-19 lockdown.

What’s worse for travel Omicron or Macron in the short term?

When news of the new Omicron variant emerged, it was obvious it was going to be bad news for the country as a whole and travel in particular.

 The exponential growth rate of Omicron means further restrictions on our liberty will be needed and a lockdown circuit breaker in January, involving the shutdown of the hospitality sector and restrictions on indoor meetings seemingly inevitable.

 However, the rapid spread of Omicron and its relatively mild nature compared to other variants, hopefully, means it’s likely to be a short, sharp crisis, with an emergence the other side by March/April 2022 allowing Summer overseas holidays to proceed as they did for the second half of Summer 21.

 The travel industry has already proved itself to be extremely resilient, however, the wholesale cancelling of winter Ski and winter sun holidays could cause a cash-flow hit that sends many companies to the wall.

 President Macrons, politically motivated move to ban UK citizens from Holidaying in France, will be a killer blow to many UK Travel businesses if it proves anything more than a temporary measure.

 France already has an Omicron wave sweeping across it and statistics indicate it is only a few days behind the UK’s own wave of infections. Therefore, locking its borders to UK Citizens who have been double/tripled jab and passed lateral flow/PCR Covid-19 testing before arriving makes no logical sense. The rate of internal infections caused by French citizens mixing over Christmas in houses, pubs, restaurants, and supermarkets is likely to have 1,000s of times more impactful than the entry of foreign holidaymakers.

 Hitting tourists is therefore simply a high-profile gimmick from a set of politicians desperate to be seen doing something.

 I personally think insisting that all travellers should be double jabbed and have passed a simple lateral flow test before boarding any flight is a logical and reasonable requirement. It also provides those flying with extra reassurance that flying on crowded aircraft is Covid safe, boosting bookings.

 I can even understand why countries with low infection rates demand the more expensive and higher quality laboratory-based PCR tests, as they do not want a high level of infections to enter the country via tourism. However, the moment a variant like Omicron has taken a grip in a country, this is completely pointless, as the domestic-based spreading of people visiting venues without the need for Covid testing will cause a much higher rate of transmission.

 The UK Government’s own requirement for 2-day isolation and a PCR test for release is also completely ineffective and a politically motivated “token gesture”. Is it surprising other countries pose the same illogical conditions on UK tourists, as their citizens face when entering the UK?

 The most illogical and unforgivable piece of UK politics is the continued refusal to allow UK outbound travellers to use NHS facilities to take the PCR or lateral flow tests that the Government is demanding for travel. As stated, many times, travellers should pay a fee for these tests of around £12.50 per lateral flow and £22.50 for PRCs to cover costs and generate a small profit for the NHS. Leaving private companies to rip off travellers with unregulated pricing is simply inexcusable and shows either a complete lack of understanding or care at the dire state the UK outbound travel sector is in.

 The Macron V Boris Brexit fight is clearly the motivation for the UK being the only European country that France has banned tourism from and is, unfortunately, an indication of the unwanted Brexit dividend the UK travel industry is likely to reap.

 The reaction of other key holiday destinations such as Spain, Greece, and Turkey in the coming weeks is crucial, as European Union leaders seek to harmonise Covid-19 entry policies across the bloc. A short term hit to ski holidays is a high price for ski specialists, but uncertainty about the ability to enter key holiday destinations in Summer 2022 will be disastrous, as it would generate a massive wave of cancellations as well as killing new bookings dead.

 I regret to say its politicians like Macon who threaten the future of our industry even more than Omicron itself.

Living with the new travel “Normal”​

Like many people in the Travel sector, I had hoped that the worst of Covid-19 disruption was behind us and that we could look forward to a strong Summer 2022. But then Omicron came along!

 Only time will tell whether European Governments are overreacting by trying to bolt the entry door shut after Omicron has already entered the country. However, as an industry, we need to understand that the new normal for travel is “uncertainty” and work around this unpleasant reality.

 January booking peaks are likely to be thing of the past with customers only willing to book 2-3 months in advance, once they have a better view of how easy travel will be. For example, how many families with children between 12-15 will book a holiday in January to Spain, now it is only accepting double vaccinated UK citizens when it’s unclear when access to a second jab will be available to children in this age group?

 The Spanish tourist authorities will be tearing their hair out, with their own Government, over these double vaccination demands.

 Spain is leading the way in terms of vaccinating children, having double vaccinated 84.5% of its 12–18-year-olds, but it seems to have completely ignored the status of its biggest holidaymakers source markets.

 Germany only approved vaccinations for under 16’s in August 21 and has vaccinated 47.3%. The UK is even further behind, having only started the process in Sept 21 and currently only have 44.4% vaccinated with a single dose and virtually no children having received both the vaccinations Spain is now demanding for entry.

 Spain, therefore, has in effect banned families with children between 12-15 from holidaying in the country this winter and booking a summer holiday in January because of the uncertainty about access to jabs for kids before the summer.

 The fear of testing positive doing the pre-return testing process and being forced to quarantine overseas will also put off a huge number of potential holidaymakers, even before the costs of pre and post-arrival testing are considered. It would appear that the biggest impact of omicron is not making more people seriously ill, but increasing the rate of spread of Covid-19, making catching it abroad more likely, so it is likely to depress holiday demand significantly.

 Again, it’s frustrating to have these testing restrictions imposed with virtually no notice, even though the Governments own advisers admit that it’s virtually impossible in the modern world to keep new variants out of the country and imported omicron cases are insignificant compared to the rate of domestic spread.

 However, this is now the new normal, so how do we adjust?

 Here are my top 5 tips are:

·      Self-service amendments. Bit the bullet and follow Easyjet’s lead in making booking amendment a self-service function complete online. As much effort now needs to be put in slickening up the amendment process that has been put into optimising booking funnels in the past. For example, my own business Rock Insurance has developed a new amendment API that can be integrated into partners customer account areas so that any flight or holiday amendment is automatically captured and used to update the customer’s insurance policy without any need for inconvenient or expensive to handle phone calls.

·      Low deposit and flexible amendment. Customers will only book if deposits and bookings are moveable based on Covid-19 circumstance, at home or in their chosen destination. People will commit but only if bookings are moveable.

·      Scrap fixed above the line advertising. Commitments to above the line advertising mediums such as TV are difficult to scale back or even move once booked. Major companies will have to increase the focus on database marketing to previous bookers and unfortunately expensive but flexible mediums like Google search.

·      Focus on immediate departures. Easier said than done but focus on bookings that bring in cash the fastest, which will be late availability deals to the Canaries etc in winter and early summer season departures for May- July 2022. As ever in a crisis, cash is king!

·      Flexible staffing.  Unpopular, but job sharing and flexible contracts are now a must assuming it’s unlikely that the UK Government will introduce sector-specific assistance now furlough has finished.

 Undoubtedly, Omicron will be the last straw for many travel companies, whose balance sheets have been devasted over the last 18 months, but the survivors will emerge stronger and more flexible.

Travel needs to widen the sustainability debate.

At a recent travel forum discussing how Travel should operate sustainably in a post COP26 world, now that the awareness of the dangers of global warming and the need for climate action has grown exponentially within our client base, too much time was spent on naval gazing.

I don’t mean to be rude or dismissive but flagging newer aircraft or direct flights as “Greener” options and talking about less regular towel changes, is not going to pass as credible climate action.

The fundamental element of travel is a flight that burns fuel, is Co2 emitting and will be seen as polluting and contributing to Global warming. It’s important we own this truth and although we need to focus on every possible aircraft efficiency, such as using less polluting biofuels, it is unlikely that aircraft flights will ever be a carbon-neutral option in isolation.

It is my belief that travel needs to widen the debate and position the option of reducing personal travel, in context to the other ways individuals and business can reduce their carbon footprints.

The graph above shows that travel represents 12% of an individual’s carbon footprint, but driving an “Internal Combustion Engine” (I.C.E) car powered by polluting fossil fuels, such as petrol or diesel, causes 29% of emissions annually. More than double their annual travel impact.  

A lot of people are put off moving to EV’s, because they are on average 25% more expensive than their ICE equivalents currently and by range anxiety due to an inadequate national charging network. Both issues however are solvable as long as employers are willing to assist.

The Government has introduced massive tax breaks worth 32-42% off the cost of a personal lease depending on an employee’s tax bracket. However, these savings are only available via an employer operated “Salary Sacrifice Schemes” (SSS),  where the employer leases the car and deducts the cost from a staff members salary before Tax.

Employers have an incentive to do this in the form of 15% NI (2022 rate) savings and being able to claim half the 20% VAT back on the lease, creating a net saving of £250 on every £1,000 spent. In turn, part of this saving can be used to take out “Revenue Assurance” against any empty leases caused by staff leaving, which removes virtually all the risk of operating a SSS scheme.

Effectively these schemes make EV’s 20% cheaper to lease than ICE equivalents, even before the 66% reduction in fuel bills from the cheaper electricity power source and 25% lower maintenance costs are considered.

Range anxiety for EV owners who have a home charger is mainly a myth, since 95% of charging is done at home, as the average 200 range of an EV, is more than enough to cope with the daily commute. However, employers need to ensure that office charging is bookable and made available on a priority basis for staff living in flats or housing where home charging is not possible, and staff need to accept infrequent longer journeys need to be made by train.

The move to EV’s is clearly possible with the assistance of employers and will progress rapidly in the UK.

A further 41% of personal emissions come from home space and water heating, but this is a more complex topic to deal with, as the Government has yet to issue an incentive program to encourage people to abandon Gas water heaters. However, the recent 600% increase in Gas prices is likely to do the job for them and many people are already looking at alternatives such as ground source heat pumps and electric boilers.

As an industry, I think we need to widen the emissions debate and show that customers can continue to travel “guilt-free” if they move to reduce 60% of their emissions by moving to an EV and sorting out domestic emissions, which are both far higher elements of their carbon footprints.

Overseas travel is proven to benefit mental health and bread increased cultural understanding and tolerance. We should not lose sight of these virtues and offset these against the emissions damage travel causes, BUT only if we encourage alternative reductions and lead by example as employers.

If you’re a travel business that has not looked at implementing an EV Salary Sacrifice scheme to create a “Green Fleet” of employers who take an EV as a perk of employment rather than a business necessity, then you should.

EV’s are set to become a key recruitment/retention tool and moving 50% of staff to a Green fleet EV will on average move a business 62% closer to becoming Carbon Neutral.

In order for travel to widen the sustainability debate and preach the benefits of continuing to travel, despite its inherent polluting nature, we need to make sure outside of flight itself we have done everything possible to move both our own business and destination partners towards being carbon neutral. Again, an easy solution is to insist on electric coach’s, taxis, or airport ground handling.

The future is Green, but travellers can be educated to alternatives to simply travelling less.