Convention will be remembered for Grant Shapps’ address
“I’m sorry we’re sitting in the chill of the UK rather than the warmth of Marrakech,” said Mark Tanzer, opening the 2020 Travel Convention, the first to be held virtually amid a continuing crisis for the beleaguered travel sector. “I have in the past been accused of being too downbeat in my Convention opening remarks,” said the ABTA chief executive, “but it would be hard to exaggerate the scale of the crisis that has overtaken the travel industry.” Since March, he said, the industry has been in “cardiac arrest” – resulting redundancies and collapse. The Convention, he added, is a forward-looking event, “but in Tokyo last year no one could foresee the drama that was about to unfold.”
This year’s Convention will undoubtedly be remembered for a much-criticised address by Grant Shapps. The transport secretary caused anger when he said that the travel industry had been supported by “unprecedented measures”, but proceeded to list a series of non-industry-specific schemes. He also listed the travel corridors and the recently announced Global Travel Taskforce among the steps taken by the government with the travel sector in mind. However, Tanzer noted that the travel corridors are now mainly shut: “They may exist in theory but there’s very few places you can go,” he said.
Reminding Shapps that “we are still in the middle of this crisis”, Tanzer called the speech “very retrospective – about what they’ve done and how grateful the industry should be for this. Furlough did save jobs but it’s about what happens over the next six months.
“He said an awful lot of work had gone in to testing [but] we’ve seen none of the results,” Tanzer said. “We have to hit the ground running if we’re going to move out of this [crisis]. [The government] seems to have just disproved various theories; [now saying that] you can’t do a day zero test on arrival because of asymptomatic cases.” Tanzer also said he “was not optimistic about global collaboration” between nations, adding that the “level so far has been very poor; each country has looked after itself.”
“If we can’t collaborate, we must at least talk to each other. We have to have an understanding of what’s happening in other countries. Dialogue is absolutely essential,” he said. Speaking about the need for regionalised quarantine measures, Tanzer noted the three-tier system in the UK, asking why more nuanced measures can’t be applied to international destinations. He also said he didn’t feel as if the transport secretary was “going in to bat” for the tourism sector.
Tanzer also spoke of the controversy over refunds. “Covid-19 hit the travel industry like a freight train – lots of people wanted their money back, with no cash coming in,” he said. “We introduced the idea of refund credit notes – it wasn’t entirely popular with customers, or some in the industry. We’re aware of the very difficult position this has put the travel industry in. That said, I think it was the right thing to do. We’ve always stuck to the position that where the Foreign Office says you can’t travel, refunds are due. That principle has come under question in recent weeks, but I think it’s important we stick to that.
“It was like musical chairs when the music stops. You realise money flows from the customer through the system, but at the point when it’s due back you may not have it. People are rightly saying we should look at how this flow of money works – but we should tread carefully, and look at this in the future.”
In his address, Shapps did more to downplay hopes of a rigorous testing regime than to promote the idea of one – although a week later announced he is “very hopeful” a new testing regime can be in place by December 1. Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, spoke at length at the Convention about the importance of testing. “Without an efficient test, trace track and then isolate [regime] this country will not emerge from this pandemic ahead of a vaccine,” he said. “We started testing all our crews that go to Shanghai and to Bangkok, we’ve now added Barbados as well. It happens at the airport, it’s a 30-minute test without diverting any attention from the NHS, which is super essential.”
The Convention also saw a guest presentation from Jo Fairley, founder of Green & Black’s, followed by a panel led by Susan Deer, director of industry relations, ABTA, who noted that “now more than ever we need to demonstrate that tourism can be a force for good.” During the discussion, Shannon Guihan, chief TreadRight and sustainability officer at The Travel Corporation, said that “while a lot of businesses are in survival, we see sustainability being directly linked to business resilience. Failure to address climate change, simply opens the door for future travel interruptions.” She added: “We can’t lose sight of this critical issue, otherwise we’ll face similar issues [to now].” Clare Jenkinson, head of sustainability at ABTA, said that we “need to embed sustainability into the industry”, as well as accelerate decarbonisation and focus on human rights and animal welfare.
At a panel entitled Consumer Confidence in Travel, Julie Murphy, country sales manager, UK & Ireland, All Nippon Airways, said that a “minimum standard” has been introduced across the network of Star Alliance, of which she is chair of the Country Steering Committee. She that “masks, PPE for crew and a cleaning regime are the basic key element that as a traveller we would expect,” adding that: “Customers aren’t interested in intricacies of frequent-flier programmes, they want to feel safe.”
Stuart Baker, head of travel at GlobalWebIndex, agreed, saying “customer service is now [synonymous with] safety standards, those markers such as face masks, PPE and hand sanitiser; safety protocols are now a conscious driver of public behaviour.” He also spoke of the emergence of “Covid fatigue”, noting that “people want to manage their own risk; they want to take ownership of what they do and where they travel. it’s an acceptance of the pandemic – it’s essentially pragmatism.”
Meanwhile, ABTA called on the government to provide urgent support for the travel industry in a bid to help boost consumer confidence. In statistics released during the event, ABTA revealed that just 15 per cent of people took a foreign holiday between February and July 2020, compared to 51 per cent over the previous 12-month period. The year before it was 64 per cent.
As expected, Marrakech will host the 2021 Travel Convention – after this year’s event was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Moroccan city, which last hosted the conference in 2005, was due to host the 2020 Convention. Situated at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh is known for its famous Jemaa El Fna square, its bazaars, riads and palaces.
The Convention will take place in October 2021 at Palmeraie Resorts Marrakech under the Moroccan National Tourist Office (MNTO) host. The country has recently announced the relaxation of its borders to UK residents – although it isn’t currently on the travel corridors list, meaning returning Britons will have to self-isolate for 14 days.
It is currently served by two airlines from the UK; Royal Air Maroc operates from London Heathrow into Casablanca three times weekly, while Air Arabia departs from London Gatwick into Tangier twice weekly. Ryanair has announced it will resume operations to Morocco within the next two weeks, with Liverpool servicing Marrakech and Manchester to Agadir.
Shai Weiss called on the government to act quickly at The Travel Convention
The chief executive of Virgin Atlantic has said that without the removal of quarantine through a testing regime “we are unable to take off as an economy and a society”.
Speaking at The Travel Convention, which was held as a one-day virtual event, Shai Weiss, called on the government to act quickly with its Global Travel Taskforce as the “time of need is now” to open the markets for Christmas travel, Easter and summer.
“In terms of the government’s response, I think, in retrospect, every, any one of us could have done things better, quicker and more decisively,” Weiss said. “I’m calling still for government action right now. Because this industry is essential to the UK, one in 10 jobs in the UK, and by the way, in the globe, rely on travel, and tourism. So just to think that this industry can be left to its own devices, when all the constraints are put on by governments, I think is short sighted. The government has announced the [Global Travel] Taskforce, it should have come earlier; what we want to see is this taskforce act quickly.”
Although, at The Travel Convention, Shapps appeared to play down testing hopes in his speech, the transport secretary now says he is “very hopeful” a new testing regime can be in place by December 1, which would reduce the amount of time inbound travellers need to spend in quarantine. Meanwhile, passengers flying from Heathrow to Hong Kong will be able to have a rapid Covid-19 test at the airport before checking in. The tests, which must be pre-booked, cost £80 and results are available within an hour.
Weiss said that “without an efficient test, trace track and then isolate [regime] this country will not emerge from this pandemic ahead of a vaccine.” Speaking of Virgin Atlantic’s new testing regime, he said: “We started testing all our crews that go to Shanghai and to Bangkok, we’ve now added Barbados as well. It happens at the airport, it’s a 30-minute test without diverting any attention from the NHS, which is super essential.
“We’ve actually seen, for instance, that we’ve already found two cases of our crew that were had Covid-19 but were asymptomatic; we put them into isolation, and prevented first them impacting the crew around them and, of course, our passengers. So this is the way to go,” he said.
“Our team is now reviewing all the opportunities out there for rapid point of care testing pre-departure to allow the UK economy to take off. You know, 500,000 jobs in the UK are tied to aviation directly and indirectly, the industry contributes £22 billion just in aviation, and trade between the US and the UK is $262 billion.”
Weiss said that he expected that passengers would foot the bill for testing, noting that “the cost of testing will come down rapidly.
“We’re cooperating, of course, with our friends and colleagues, the facilities already at Heathrow. You know, there are people talking about the fact that there will be almost a pregnancy-style testing coming up very soon. Our job is to look around the market find the best standards that give customers confidence to fly and governments to know that planes and travel and tourism do not bring infections with them, which I don’t think is the case at all.”
Weiss said the “the worst-case scenario is 500,000 job [losses]”. He added: “This is about an industry that used to be thriving, and one of the leaders of its kind in the world. Travel tourism at the airline failures are a real possibility, it is a possibility that we have planned for a severe downturn that continues well into next year. But at some point, if borders do not open up, you know, an industry that does not take passengers when they’re supposed to, there’s only a certain amount of time that you can survive.
“We’ve shored up our balance sheet, we’re here to stay [and] provide the service,” he said referring to Virgin Atlantic’s £1.2 billion recapitalisation, which included £370m of additional capital coming from Richard Branson. “I do fear that if action is not forthcoming, now, we will lose the Christmas business, we will lose the Easter and, of course, the summer for next year. And it’s all about the consumer confidence, but also the impact the travel and aviation has on our economy.”