‘We’ll get by with a little help from our friends (and Rishi)’

02nd Dec

When Karl Douglas opened Beverley Travel at the beginning of 2020, little did he know that Covid-19 was going to devastate the industry within a matter of weeks. That being the case, it was something of a silly question to ask whether he would have opened had he known what was around the corner, but I asked him to indulge me and wave the magic wand of hindsight nevertheless.
“I would have probably hung on and delayed the opening, but that would have been the wrong decision,” says Karl, who previously spent 15 years at Smith & Nephew and later ran his own business distributing medical products, before deciding to change tack and set up in travel. “I think the right decision was to open, and make the impact that we did, and although it was quite a tough time it gave us the chance to prove our service promise. We got more five-star reviews during lockdown than we did before it.”
The fact that Karl and Kelly brought their separate travel businesses together under one roof was another major positive, as was “the fact that people have absolutely learned the benefit of booking through an independent agent they know and trust, with the protection that ATOL-protected packages bring”.
Indeed, even before the pandemic, recent years have seen the revival of the traditional and ever more tailor-made package holiday, which had fallen out of favour with the advent of the internet and the low-cost flights revolution. The popularity of the piecemeal DIY holiday has since waned as the industry has fragmented, with major losses such as airlines including Monarch and Flybe, and the collapse of Thomas Cook. The protections that packages can offer, such as ensuring you won’t be stranded or left seriously out of pocket in the event of such a failure, are becoming ever more attractive among an increasingly nervous consumer base.
Bricks-and-mortar travel agencies are making a comeback for similar reasons. Where the big companies focused on their bottom line during the pandemic, and, as Karl says, “completely forgot about the customer”, Beverley Travel provided the reassuring personal service that people were crying out for. “We were actually servicing our competitors’ customers during lockdown and advising them on their rights and what they were entitled to,” Karl adds.
And their premises in Flemingate couldn’t be further from the bland office setup that brings to mind that famous “computer says no” sketch from Little Britain. “On one level,” says Karl, “our shop is an expensive office, but there is absolutely a market for face-to-face purchases, and what we aim to do with the store has meant that it’s more of a personalised experience as well; from the moment people walk in, although we’re not able to give them a coffee or a glass of fizz at the minute, there’s space just to sit down and find out information, have a chat, with no pressure. It’s all about building the relationship and understanding the customer properly so that we can make an informed recommendation rather than just saying, well, this is what we’ve got to sell.”
Kelly, aka The Sassy Explorer, spent many years in the pub trade after studying licensed retail management at university but, five years ago, she decided to get out and go it alone – so you could say that she’s ended up going from the frying pan into the fire. She says, though, that while she has great empathy for those working in the world she left behind, “I can’t get the Michael Jackson song out of my head – What About Us? – every time I turn on the TV and they’re talking about hospitality. I don’t think we’re really given the time within the media to say how terrible it is for us, too.” If I had to choose a song, I think it’d be, ‘We’ll get by with a little help from our friends’ – and Rishi Sunak!” adds Karl.
There’s also a perception that travel does not generate as much for the UK economy as the nation’s pubs and restaurants – but this a myth, adds Kelly. “The knock-on effect on the ancillary professions and businesses connected to travel is huge. For example, you won’t find a beautician who’s had much trade this year because nobody’s been going away and having treatments done in advance.” Karl adds, “My wife is a beauty therapist and most of her summer work is preparing people to go away.”
Even worse than this is the misconception that travel actually takes money out of the UK economy.
“That’s possibly the government’s rationale,” says Karl, “but it’s totally false. As Kelly said, even before people leave, they’ve spent a lot of money on beauty treatments and products – then there’s clothes, perhaps a taxi, car parking, airport hotels, the food and retail outlets in the airport, all before you’ve stepped on the plane.”
“We spent 100 quid in Leeds Bradford!” interjects Kelly.
“OK, after you have gone on the plane,” adds Karl, “that’s where some of the money goes out of the country, but the vast majority of what you spend on a foreign holiday stays in the country.” It has a local impact too, he says. “We employ people here. We invest in the premises. We live in the community and we buy local, so that knock-on effect far outweighs the percentage of money that actually ends up outside Britain.”
And for every airline seat going abroad, there’s one coming back, of course. “Without an outbound travel industry, we don’t have an inbound travel industry, either,” says Karl, “so when you add it all up, the gross financial impact of the travel industry is absolutely enormous for this country – it far outweighs the local tourism industry, and it far outweighs the hospitality industry, which also relies on us. So if you take away the impact of travel, this country has got a huge, huge issue. We’re meant to be ‘global Britain’ – but how can we be ‘global Britain’ if people can’t get on or off its shores?”
Kelly warns of a “very different travel industry” in the coming months without significant government support – and the impact will be felt not only by those employed in the sector, but by travellers, too. “We’d seen things change dramatically when Thomas Cook went last September, and prices were already going up – the offers weren’t there, and people were having to pay more for holidays they’d booked this year. Some of the big airlines have since been reducing their flight schedules and people whose holidays were cancelled this year have booked for next. Prices will rise, and if airlines and more travel firms go bust, it’s going to create even more of a problem going forward, and the average family isn’t going to be able to afford to go away any more. They’ve got to address this – it’s about the bigger picture. I get that so many industries are suffering, but this one doesn’t need to be forgotten about – because it will come back to bite them, us and everyone in the future.”
The main message Karl and Kelly want to get across loud and clear is one of “use it or lose it”. The idea that there will be loads of bargain-basement deals around next year as a result of the current situation is simply wrong, Karl says. “The balance between supply and demand is probably more impactful in travel than any consumer-based industry. Prices in supermarkets, pubs and other leisure areas might fluctuate by a few per cent, maybe there’s the odd offer here and there, but in travel it’s instant – prices can change on the screen in front of our eyes while we’re talking to people. Supply and demand is very finely balanced at the moment because of the reduction in capacity, so I’d say to people thinking about booking holidays, just get on with it – we will explain what your risks are, often small, at the booking stage.”
We’ve already mentioned the built-in protections customers can enjoy when they book a package, but agents such as Beverley Travel can offer extra advice to customers and help them navigate the minefield of risks that may be attached to a particular destination in terms of the ever-changing travel corridor list. If people just book via one of the numerous faceless online brokers out there, the onus is on them to do their research. “Our business model,” says Karl, “is primarily to take that onus from the customer and put it back on us as the provider of service.” This means they can take all the hassle out of the process and take care of everything from boarding passes to dinner reservations – but will also advise against travel if they genuinely don’t think it’s a good idea.
“I’ve had quite a few different enquiries from people who want to go to Lapland this year,” says Kelly. “They’ve seen deals online, for instance, on well-known websites, and they’ve said, ‘Can you do this for me as I’d much rather book through you, because I know I’ll have peace of mind that you’ll look after it should something go wrong’ – but I’m not prepared to do it. And I’ve told them not to book elsewhere because we don’t actually know where we are with the guidelines. They could just click a button and then at some point in the future, if the trip gets cancelled, they’ve got a fight to get their money back.”
There’s no sugar-coating the situation at the moment, and Kelly admits there can sometimes be a fine line between “bleating on about how bad it’s been, and actually looking at the positives” – but the six-strong team at Beverley Travel are most definitely focusing on the future (demonstrated in no small part by their recent campaign to recruit a digital marketing manager). As a specialist business it’s well-placed to come through this toughest of periods as, having missed out this year, people are likely to spend a bit more as soon as things open up again, says Karl. “There will be a huge pent-up demand. The main thing for us to do is make sure we’re around when the recovery happens – because it will.”

BusinessWorks Hull and East Yorkshire spring 2021

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