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.