The Now & The Next episode two: a deep dive into travel

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Independent Digital Network TIPi Group currently host a fortnightly sector focused The Now & The Next series, and this week was all about travel. Peter Cowie of Top Banana had a virtual chat with Chris Roe, commercial director at Sound Travel and formerly senior board member at Virgin Holidays and Accor Hotels, Ricardo Gato of Cookson Adventures and Gareth Owen, managing director at TIPi Group. They discussed how they have shifted their strategies and what they are doing to plan for the future.

Peter Cowie: Chris, tell us about your latest venture.

Chris Roe: It’s called Sound Travel. We started in September and we work with Ticketprovider to create a package around an event, with hotels and other bits of added value. We then sell this back to the ticket providers and they offer it to consumers.

Luckily for us most of the concerts have been postponed rather than cancelled, however we are still having to process some refunds for customers.

Already new events are cropping up and it feels like business is returning, but we have to ask what will be different. Will there be reduced capacity in venues? How will social distancing work?

PC: Ricardo, explain what Cookson Adventures offers. What makes it unique?

Ricardo Gato: At Cookson Adventures, we do luxury, but not in the traditional sense. It's not all about extreme comfort in hotels, instead we focus on providing tailored experiences that are completely unique to our customers. We build their itineraries from scratch and most of our customers are very successful people who want to use their time off to learn and give something back, rather than just lying in the sun.

We’ve seen a few cancellations due to coronavirus, but not many – the majority of trips have just been postponed.

PC: Gareth, from a broader perspective, what impacts have you been seeing on the travel industry?

Gareth Owen: We’ve been working with travel clients for years, whether it’s running paid activity or building websites as we did for Cookson Adventures. What we’re seeing at the moment is that all areas of the industry have been hit hard, but all in subtly different ways. Our job right now is to guide them through this difficult period and help them plan for when travel bounces back.

PC: Ricardo, how are you managing your relationships with customers at the moment?

RG: The first question we had to ask was, should we even be promoting travel at the moment? We decided that for our customers it’s important to have something to look forward to. Some of our trips take a year to plan as they are so bespoke, so it is all about looking to the future.

Plus, at a time when person-to-person contact has been cut to a minimum, you need to let your brand be human. There will be many companies looking to acquire new customers right now (or shutting down interaction altogether), but a more thoughtful approach would be to nurture those that you already have. Particularly in the luxury sector, if you can afford to personally reach out to each of your clients and check in them, you should. They won’t forget it.

At Cookson Adventures, we’ve always taken pride in making the planning process as immersive as possible. This is perfect for when all we’ve got time to do is plan and daydream about future escapes. We’re keeping their curiosities alive by showing them different places around the world, and ultimately that’s keeping ours alive, too.

This is why we launched a campaign called ’This Time Next Year’, which allows our members to know that (at the more conservative end of the scale) exploration is not that far away, and we can be the ones to take them there. It’s selling with a purpose, without being pushy.

PC: Chris, how well do you think the industry is responding to the situation?

CR: To be honest the industry is a bit of a mess. As one of my friends said to me the other day, “It’s like the sea’s gone out and nobody’s got their Speedos on”.

There’s a big issue surrounding refunds, with different trade and regulatory bodies offering different guidelines. Many consumers want their money back but are being offered credit notes instead.

The companies that are doing the best right now are the ones that have enough cash to be able to offer all their customers refunds and the ones that are already looking to the future.

People still want to plan holidays, so airlines like Jet2 who have started selling their 2021 flight very early will do well.

The well-established, big travel companies are the ones that are struggling the most. I think when we come out of this we will see a wave of smaller, meaner travel companies with less fat in head office start to dominate the market.

PC: The news we’re seeing about Virgin and British Airways is so bleak at the moment; how does the travel industry get out of this?

CR: It’s not going to be easy. Firstly there’s the logistical issue that these airlines have aircraft parked up all over the world, whereas all of their staff are furloughed at home, so even just getting the planes safe to fly and fully crewed up is going to be logistically difficult.

Beyond that there are so many other considerations we have to take into account.

As a nation who went into lockdown quite late we have to consider the fact that even when we do want to travel again some countries may not want to take us.

If you are going away will you want to be on a small island with perhaps only one ventilator?

If you’re over a certain age or vulnerable for a different reason will you be able to get travel insurance?

PC: I definitely think we will see a change in attitudes and the way that people want to spend their time, perhaps with a growing focus on spending time with family. Do you think this will have an impact on your business, Ricardo?

RG: I don’t think shifting attitudes will have a particularly adverse effect on our business, as we principally take our customers to very isolated locations away from any other travellers. Planning will continue to be very important, for example we are currently planning an expedition on a yacht and we are making arrangements for every member of the crew to self-quarantine beforehand in order to guarantee the safety of the guests.

PC: Gareth, from the agency perspective what are you seeing?

GO: After seeing incremental rises in Google’s CPCs for the travel industry for so many years we are now seeing incremental decreases. There will certainly be opportunity when travel starts to become allowed again and flexibility will be key to taking advantage of this. Ending lockdown will have to be done in a phased approach, and each phase might offer a different window of opportunity surrounding certain types of holiday or certain types of traveller.

Businesses will have to act fast to take advantage of these opportunities, and as the market will not be as big as it was before, all growth will have to come at the expense of your competitors. For example, how do you cater to the over-60s who were going to go on a cruise but now can’t. If you can’t create a good proposition, and do it quickly, then someone else will.

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