In the role of Commercial Manager for the Focus Travel Partnership, I work as the intermediary between our members and our travel suppliers, providing support and guidance to our 60 partner TMCs but also continuing to drive the relationship with our travel suppliers .. it’s a balancing act for all as we progress our way through this unprecedented crisis.

The travel ecosystem has been disrupted heavily and the dependencies of each other is more paramount than it has ever been and it’s sadly a cycle that is affecting everyone in the global travel environment in one way or another.  Airlines, rail, car hire, hotels and many more supplier companies are experiencing something that they have never had to consider in their whole existence .. and no-one could possibly have been prepared for what has happened! 

Our partners are SME focussed TMCs and therefore their customers sit in the small to medium enterprise range of the corporate industry and with this comes both challenges and opportunities.  The challenges mainly sit around the financial elements of ticket refunds allowing them to survive their own commercial pain.  However, from a positive stance, these are the businesses that I believe will recognise the value of the TMC more – they know who to speak to in order to get updated advice about changes to bookings, refunds,  vouchers, country immigration, visa requirements or repatriation etc .. I could continue to list these positives and they are all available through the one channel – their TMC.  If an SME corporate didn’t have a TMC before this crisis, they must be tearing their hair out in managing their own pre-existing bookings .. and what a great time to consider a TMC for the future? 

Airlines in crisis

As the larger number of transactions through our partners related to air tickets, this has been our key area for immediate action.  We’ve been immersed in an area of travel that is changing by the minute, with every airline (all 5000 of them) making their own policies on changes, refunds, schedules and workflows.  Keeping our partners updated via one central portal has been our key objective and we’ve successfully achieved this through our Covid-19 news hub on our partners extranet.  With some airlines issuing new policies on an almost daily basis, it’s definitely kept us on our toes but a challenge that we’ve willingly accepted in order to ensure our members have the latest information at their fingertips.

However, we have had to walk a fine line in terms of relationship with our airline partners and refunds is the key topic that has challenged the whole of the travel community across all sectors.  Where airlines have had to cancel flights due to Covid-19, the expectation is that the customer would be refunded in full – after all, it wasn’t their fault that the flights had to be cancelled.  But, as you will read daily, airlines are haemorrhaging money .. just keeping fleet on the ground, let alone paying customers refunds!  The Lufthansa Group has published stats that they are losing US$1 million an hour by not flying .. something that cannot be sustained long term.  This has led to several airlines appearing to have ripped up the rule book and gone rogue with not offering cash refunds and only offering vouchers, and whilst we can understand why .. but it’s a tough pill for customers to swallow, especially when they have supported the airlines for many years with high yield business!

Although airlines cannot predict when we’ll move into a more positive phase, they are keen to ensure they keep in touch which we are actively encouraging.  However, we strongly believe that those who have supported the trade by offering choice and making their processes easy to manage are the airlines who will see a quicker recovery through the corporate trade.

An opportunity for the rail network

For rail companies, they don’t appear to have experienced the same issues over refunds and therefore have had less press coverage. However, as we move into a recovery phase that could start with domestic travel returning, that’s where the current focus is – how will rail operators manage social distancing being the key question? This then moves into thoughts about progression of e-ticketing to avoid any physical contact at ticket counters and machines, and also the development of fares programmes, possibly ripping up the existing framework of peak/off peak fares with something that is easier to understand and definitely easier to sell through the TMC network.

With the continual evolving ecosystem of the rail network, does this give the UK a chance to change the fragmented rail system into a more cohesive network with consistent policies across all train operating companies?

Moving into a new travel environment

As the world takes every day one by one, we eagerly wait to get some clarification on how the travel world will recover and this will include considerations and policy setting across the whole travel chain to include airports, immigration relating to health and safety, airlines, rail, road transport – car hire, coach, bus, taxi as well as the millions of hotels across the globe – where do we start as there are so many stake-holders globally?

We are a very resilient industry which has gone through crisis before – we need to take the time now to look at the negatives of the past and make them into positives for the future.  Some key areas will be setting new robust policies to satisfy health and safety as well as the financial protection of travellers as well as introducing new working practices using innovative solutions that benefit both the TMC and their customers .. but these are only a starter of many more opportunities that we should take the current time to assess and act positively on.

At Focus, we are working closely with our partners on how their businesses need to develop and change as we edge towards restart and recovery phase in the coming months