“Information is what you get online — knowledge is what you get from a travel agent." That’s the golden adage of Dominic Burke, the managing director of Travel Centres, Ireland’s largest grouping of independently-owned travel agencies, with members spanning from Letterkenny to Midleton.
Amid the most bruising of years, Burke’s colleagues have been at the veritable frontline of the travel industry, facing an unprecedented tsunami of booking cancellations, rescheduling and refunds. But as light at the end of the travel tunnel begins to ever-so-gently glimmer, this week I chatted to the travel pro about his outlook for 2021. And how Irish travel agents could offer consumers a port of booking security in any future travel storms.
Burke begins by telling me of his sector’s initial reaction to the crisis back in March.
“I think we initially careered from denial to quickly realising the magnitude of the situation. After that shock came all the false dawns; first thinking we might travel last June or July and then September or October. Now, we’ve had to recalibrate our expectations and realise that maybe it’s going to be June 2021 until we see a return to travel — and that’s in small iterations rather than the floodgates opening — and ultimately 2022 until we really recover”.
Given that turbulent timeline, 2020 saw several travel agency casualties but Dominic remains hopeful for those colleagues who have managed to sustain the collapse.
“Sadly, we had five members who ceased trading,” he tells me.
“But those closures occurred relatively early in the crisis, so some may have been agents with underlying issues. Thankfully, the others are all surviving. The government offered a lifeline, for all their criticism, and the PUP and CRSS payments made the difference in many businesses throwing in the towel. But I’ve been amazed overall at their resilience to hang in there.”
According to Burke, the last nine months has seen travel agents grafting behind closed doors, unpaid, trying to do the right thing by their clients in terms of cancelling, rebooking and rescheduling trips.
“As we speak, agents are still negotiating with airlines like Ryanair to get refunds,” he says.
Dominic is hoping that that commitment to service will stay in consumers’ minds and ripples through to the wider conversation on travel. “That, along with the knowledge that unlike with airlines, booking with a travel agent means your money is 100% guaranteed as they have to be licensed and bonded,” he adds.
But in order for us to actually get to travel this year, Dominic distills our chances down to three key conditions.
“First of all, the consumer needs certainty,” he says. “All this on-again / off-again travel and ever-changing green lists plays negatively into the public consciousness. Secondly, safety will be key; from air travel to bus transfers to hotels and all the touch points along the way. And then there’s the question of will normality prevail? The idea of going to Lanzarote might not be appealing for some if it feels like a ghosts town,” he explains.
With those conditions hurdled, he feels new travel trends will finally emerge in 2021 and for those consumers who’ve been fortunate not to be too impacted by the crisis economically, extra money in the kitty could see more bucket-list trips take place — trips that may require the reassurance of booking through a travel agent.
‘I think you might see consumers going for private villas over choosing an apartment in a two hundred unit complex, people may opt more for river cruises over sea cruises and travellers who may have holidayed in the likes of Spain may consider going off the beaten track to a new destination or spoil themselves with something further afield like Florida or Cape Town. For those who can afford it, I think you may see consumers moving up the value chain."
But for now, regardless of the destination, Dominic Burke is largely longing for the moment where client calls will ring out once again at his members’ offices across the country and where we’ll all be those airport and ferry terminals soon. “There is so much speculation right now but the one thing we can be certain of – is that this will end.”
Got a travel query? Next Saturday, Weekend is hosting a travel clinic to answer your top travel questions. Do you need answers regarding an upcoming holiday booking? About your travel insurance rights during the pandemic? Or are you just looking for some advice about where to travel this year? Send me your queries by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org