Six months later…
“I just wanted to start with asking ‘how are you?’ Not in a cursory polite way, but just because I cannot imagine what it was like running a travel company over the past six months and I want to know the answer!”. So started my interview this afternoon with TV’s Steph McGovern.
Some shameless name dropping there, but I was a guest on a Natwest sponsored podcast on ‘tough conversations’ in business. It turns out she was as sharp and friendly as her TV persona and asked some interesting questions. We’ll link to the full interview when it is released if you’re interested.
When you stop to think about it though, it has been an incredible six months at the sharp end in the travel industry. We’re not a unique case, and in fact, we’ve had it easier than many in travel, being relatively small and specialist and with very supportive customers. But still. Bloody hell.
Travel is a resilient sector: we expect ‘things’ to happen – ‘known unknown’ events that take us unawares and usually, we can roll with them. From the 2011 Volcanic Ash Cloud to the Thailand airport shutdowns and 2019’s Sri Lanka terrorist attacks, there is almost always something when you’re a travel specialist in Asia (or anywhere for that matter). But this was something else. We lost all revenue, and we had to get clients back from all over Asia with airports closing, utter chaos with local regulations changing by the minute and the flight schedules plunged into confusion. At the same time, we had to learn to ‘work from home’ like everyone else, try and postpone half a year’s worth of future bookings and come to terms with the possible loss of our livelihoods.
If someone had told me last year we’d have to work out all of that and still be standing, six months later, I would not have believed them. But here we are, still standing and making plans for the future. We’ve just had our ATOL licence renewed for another year too. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our customers (without the many postponements we would have given up the ghost, so thank you – truly). There was an outstanding contribution from our incredible team; working full pelt under the most insane pressure at significantly reduced rates of pay and yes, some government support in the shape of the furlough scheme and local business rates relief. Lastly, a huge thank you to our partners, technology suppliers, freelancers and our landlord too – we owe so many of you when all this is over.
The hard part
Furlough for travel only goes so far, though. We’re not a shop or a bar that could shutter during the lockdown and then tentatively reopen once it was over. Our customers needed servicing throughout, if only to be given a refund or have their trips postponed (which can involve as much, if not even more, work as booking the trip in the first place). They needed support and help as they came to terms with the loss of their long-anticipated holidays. We also had to go to battle with airlines (and a few other suppliers – though the majority were brilliant) as an almost complete cash freeze spread throughout the industry. So we had to keep some of our staff on full-time, and while demand has returned a little (of which more later) it is nowhere near being what we would expect at this time of year, and we have not had a holiday depart since mid-March.
We had to make some hard decisions, and I wanted to let you, our ETG community know about them. Very sadly, we had to make a third of our fantastic team redundant. We went from 21 to 14 people in head office. We have been unable to give any work to our freelancers in Asia since May. My co-founder Tom suggested that these simultaneously were the hardest and easiest decisions we ever made. Hardest, because we had to ‘let go’ of hard-working, talented and brilliant people. People that were friends and colleagues for a very long time – in one case over seven years. Not only that, but they had done a sterling and inspirational job when we were in the ‘eye of the storm’ from late January when we were first hit by COVID-19, through March and into April.
Easiest, because we had no choice. We had to cut our costs to the absolute minimum until we can start operating trips once again. We have been profitable and cautious over the years and built up a decent war chest, but we didn’t have unlimited funds while we waited for travel to re-start and our revenues to return. We wanted to give our colleagues as long as possible to find alternative employment, and with the help of the furlough scheme, we paid them for lengthy notice periods. These will finish at the end of September. I know that many of you will be very sad to miss ‘your’ consultant, but please rest assured that we parted on the best possible terms and they have all kinds of exciting plans, and I have no doubt will flourish in the future. We’re also planning a big party with them in late September. *Update – Party sadly cancelled as per new regulations 🙁
As to the rest of us, we feel that the least we can do is redouble our efforts and get the good ship ETG back afloat. We will build on our achievements of the past 15 years or so and ensure we become the best travel company in the world for people who genuinely want to make their travel experiences count. Watch this space.
Looking to the future
We want to get back quickly to doing what we do best, which is researching, monitoring, planning, booking, and generally operating holidays. We’ve seen a decent increase in website traffic these past few weeks and a definite uptick in enquiries too. From our surveys, we know that you’re keen to travel again and looking forward to booking travel once it is safe and sensible to do so. At the same time, we know that COVID-19 is still with us and the level of uncertainty around what will happen in even the very near future, is high. We’ve introduced a three-part solution to try and square this particular circle.
We started by removing the risk for those enquiring right now, by introducing a special £100 per person deposit level. It is fully refundable if the holiday doesn’t go ahead. We’ve also introduced a ‘Travel Ready’ assessment scheme to inform our customers as to when we consider that a destination or even a particular type of holiday is ‘Travel Ready’. Then, our COVID Promise ensures that you will never be taking a significant financial risk during this time even once your holiday has been paid in full.
We’ve also been busy behind the scenes creating and refining our holidays for a world learning to cope with an ever-present pandemic. We have a new product currently in soft launch, called Revitalise, which offers the kinds of rejuvenating travel experience that we think people may need to help put 2020 behind them. We’re also implementing a complete ‘COVID-ready’ overhaul of our holidays, ensuring that people can travel safely and that our local friends and partners are safe too. There is a massive collaborative effort going on in this respect, with us tour operators working closely with our Asian counterparts.
As many of you know, we’ve also been running a series of online events called “Bringing Travel Home’ which, we hope, does what it says on the tin: bringing a little of that Asia travel magic to our homes via the magic of Zoom. We’ve had a fantastic turn out as we welcomed John Gimlette, the travel writer, to bring Sri Lanka to life through a series of objects. We invited Husna-Tara Prakesh to give us a wide-ranging and fascinating history lecture from her home in Bengal and a live cooking lesson and tour from the Rosyth Estate Hotel in Sri Lanka.
We’re talking and supporting our local partners throughout Asia every day: we’re doing real practical things to help them manage their way through these terrible times for them. Unlike us, they don’t have government support. All activity, if only a new booking on a £100 deposit gives them much hope for the future. We’re working with our counterparts in Asia, with our fellow tour operators in the UK and businesses in other sectors too as we struggle to make sense of the world as it is now. Bringing people together is very much what we do, albeit we’ve had to adapt to do it in a slightly different way.
I wanted to finish by saying thank you very much to all of you for your support, encouragement and positivity along the way. I want to say a special thank you to those team members who have moved onto pastures new. Just like all of our customers, they’ll always be part of ETG. Thank you.
CURIOUS ABOUT TRAVEL TO ASIA?
Head to our website to find out more about our bespoke holidays to Asia.
Alternatively, to talk to a specialist about future travel plans, don’t hesitate to get in touch on 020 7924 7133