Contentious headlines emerged over the weekend declaring that no-deal Brexit contingency plans could see Britons advised not to book holidays after next March. However, despite the uncertainty travel brands like Tui are forging ahead with marketing activity during the key January trading period.
A front-page story in The Sunday Times which declared: ‘No-deal Brexit travel warning: don’t go on holiday after 29 March’ (16 December) sent panic throughout the industry. Downing Street strongly refuted the story, but as concern mounted transport secretary Chris Grayling was forced to intervene and reassure airlines and other travel companies that the government has the “desire to ensure flights between the UK and EU continue in any scenario” though declined to offer any firm promises.
The Times has stood by the story (which was still live at the time of writing) and further reports of contingency plans in the event of a no-deal Brexit have now emerged.
According to the BBC, in the coming days businesses across all sectors will be provided with a 100-plus page online pack from the government to help them prepare while emails will be sent out to 80,000 of those most like to be affected.
For the travel sector, the continued uncertainty comes at what is one of the most critical advertising periods of the year. Large swathes of ad budget will be siphoned into TV, digital, radio and press ads encouraging people to book their Summer 2019 holidays.
According to data from WPP's market research firm Kantar, marketers invested over £8m in search advertising spend against the keyword 'Hotels' alone in the January - March period last year.
Despite concerns, some of the industry’s biggest spenders have forged ahead with marketing plans and maintained their levels of spend.
Tui, for example, has already launched its marketing activity that will run into January and will kick of a wave of activity for its First Choice brand come Boxing Day.
“Bookings for summer 2019 are currently ahead of where they were for last summer at the same point in time and the overall market also reflects that trend, which shows that UK consumer demand for summer holidays is not diminishing despite the backdrop of Brexit,” a spokesperson claimed.
“We’ve also been given reassurance that air carriers from the UK will still be allowed to fly even in a no deal scenario. We will operate our holidays to the EU and our other amazing destinations as planned and customers can continue to book their holidays with us in confidence.”
British Airways and Virgin echoed this sentiment, with the latter stating that it is “well prepared for all Brexit scenarios”.
“We have robust advance sales for 2019 departures with more than 54% of our programme already sold and forward bookings 7% ahead of the same point last year,” it said.
“We know from previous economic downturns that the long-haul holiday market is resilient – and both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays plans to invest heavily in the first quarter of 2019, to capitalise on the key holiday booking period.”
Meanwhile, Lastminute.com said that “the recent messages in the media about travel to Europe post-Brexit should not create an unnecessary level of panic” and as such its marketing plans remain unchanged.
“While there has been a certain level of scaremongering, we’re not seeing that same level of uncertainty from our customers, in terms of our forward bookings and holiday searches for next year - and we will be running the traditional seasonal activity, such as our annual January sales, as we normally would,” a spokesperson added.
“The key point is that customers should remain confident that they are able to book and travel beyond 29 March, and there is sufficient financial security in place for consumers to do so.”
According to the GfK consumer sentiment index, released in late November, British consumers’ confidence has fallen to its lowest level in almost a year.
As to why the likes of Lastminute.com and Tui might not be experiencing the forward sales decline that might reasonably follow, Andy Washington, senior vice-president for Travel at Culture Trip – a platform that both publishes consumer-facing content and acts as an agency for advertisers – suggested the uncertainty may be driving people to simply “get away” from all of the 'bad news' (whatever the perceived risk).
“The reality is - is the UK going to be isolated? No. Are we going to stop people traveling out of the UK? No,” he said.
“That peak booking period after Christmas is very heavily weighted towards beach and package holidays, which are fuelled by cheap deposits, so the risks are relatively low."
He went on: "But the reality is we just don't know. If anything, the consumer is likely to benefit one way or another; they could pay a cheaper than usual deposit on a package holiday if they book ahead of time (even if they do end up choosing not to go, it's not a massive financial loss) or they may find an amazing value holiday if they wait, when European destinations will be keen to encourage UK travellers once the impact from Brexit is clear."