Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: Our worst nightmare as only three in 10 travel agents left in ghost industry

A travel agent says she is working in a “ghost industry” as 3500 fellow colleagues have left their jobs.

Meanwhile, another likened the latest lockdown to “our worst nightmare” and “devastating”.

Joanna Corbett, from Galaxy Travel in Rotorua said she started every day with hope but there were no solutions.

“Everyone is managing best they can. No one knows the answers. Mistakes are made. Successes also. We are like a ghost industry”.

Travel agent numbers had reduced from 5000 to 1500 as people left the sector to take on meaningful employment elsewhere to pay the bills.

Corbett and her colleague Michelle Rook had opted to take the hit and carry on.

The travel agent veteran of 36 years understood the necessity of the lockdown but said it was a real shame.

“It is emotionally stressful to have no business, but it is still fun to come to work each day, to such a vibrant, challenging world.

“This is our world.”

YOU Travel Bethlehem managing director Kay Rogers said the firm had spent the best part of 2020 working for zero income to recover clients’ money from overseas suppliers.

“The government promised reimbursement but refused to extend the parameters for us to be able to apply for the full amount and we were unable to access the remaining $20 million which leaves us without any opportunity to continue to pay our remaining staff and overheads to attempt to keep going.

“If we close down now and walk away it still leaves a vast number of Kiwi travellers abandoned and on their own.”

She said the lockdown has been “our worst nightmare” and “devastating”.

She agreed with the measures taken but believed the Government’s vaccine rollout was a shambles.

Rogers said there had been an upsurge of people wanting help securing MIQ spots to enable them to travel back into New Zealand while many were getting stuck overseas for months.

She had been in the industry for 33 years and been through other “trauma” like the Global Financial Crisis, SARS and 9/11.

“I have loved this industry.”

Rogers started from humble beginnings from one retail store at the Mount to a four-store operation and a $20 million-plus turnover that plummeted to a negative zero in less than one month.

“The biggest challenge is to stay focused on the end game, to stay positive for not only myself, but our remaining staff and our loyal clients.”

But she remains confident and has learnt many lessons over the last 18 months.

“We will take the experiences of this new Covid environment that has a whole different set of requirements to enable us to better service our travellers.”

The amount of documentation needed had also changed and booking online was no longer the easy quick solution.

House of Travel Papamoa owner-operator Tanya Aitken said at the moment the industry was complex but hugely rewarding.

“As professionals we know how to navigate the tricky and often unexpected aspects of travel, enabling our customers to focus on enjoying their experience. Covid has highlighted our value even more so.”

She said the lockdown was a major concern but agents were seasoned experts at re-locating, changing, amending and reassuring customers.

Aitken had been in the industry for nearly 30 years and said the biggest challenge now was uncertainty around the way forward.

“Although we now have fewer staff, we are still trading and the staff who are still with us have a wealth of knowledge and huge passion for helping the travelling public. We have pivoted our business to get through the pandemic, increasing our sales on domestic travel while supporting NZ tourism companies.

“International travel is likely to be far more complex, with requirements for entering and exiting various countries also potentially quite dynamic.”

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House of Travel Rotorua director Pam Turner has been in the industry for 39 years and is still passionate despite losing six staff and relocating the office.

“I am confident the demand for travel will increase and the services of a travel professional will be considered essential – people still like face-to-face contact and personalised service.”

Lockdowns were never easy for any business, she said.

“But the reason for it is essential and the faster we react the better the opportunity to
recover more quickly.”

$500 million in travel credits still locked overseas

The Travel Agents’ Association of New Zealand has criticised the Government for not making changes to the way it collects credits that could potentially put another $20m into their pockets.

President Brent Thomas said the association estimated $500m in refunds were still outstanding for New Zealand consumers and Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister David Clark was “refusing point blank” to help them get travellers money back.

Clark said it had extended the Consumer Travel Reimbursement Scheme by another six months to December 31 under the existing rules.

The Government has supported travel agencies and wholesalers to recoup $267.8m in refunds and $202m in credits for New Zealanders who were owed money as a result of cancelled overseas travel caused by Covid.

The scheme pays travel agents and wholesalers 7.5 per cent of all refunds and 5 per cent of all credits retrieved or rebooked.

“This is to incentivise the return of refunds over credits, which are generally more favourable to the needs of consumers. I consider the programme to have been largely successful in delivering what it set out to achieve.

“It is my expectation that agents will be actively working to return as much customer money as possible within the remaining timeframe.”

But Thomas said that move was not going to help travel agents because they had claimed almost everything they possibly could to date and actioned those files.

“The $500m sitting overseas with suppliers is now in jeopardy for consumers.”

The association was asking for the credit rate to shift from 5 per cent to 7.5 per cent and for the start date of the programme be moved from August 14 to June 5.

Thomas said the industry had done “everything we can we have pivoted and reduced staff numbers from 5000 to 1500, we have gone out of locations and worked from home.

“We have lost so many people and are going to be much smaller when we come out of this.”

But he said travel agents were a resilient bunch and there was a future, which could create opportunities, although it would take two to three years to recover.

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