As vaccines roll out and case figures drop, we are all wondering if we dare to dream of foreign travel yet? And no one more so than Suzanne O’Leary, director of O’Leary Travel in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford.
O’Leary began her professional career in finance and was working as a lending officer at a private merchant bank before joining her husband’s family’s travel business in 2001. The long-standing company, which was established in 1964. operates in the areas of corporate travel, leisure travel and group travel.
The travel industry is no stranger to crisis as O’Leary explains.
“There are different times when different segments of the business were affected. When 9/11 happened, obviously, corporate travel took a big hit for a while, leisure travel would have been more home based than the US, so the leisure side carried us through,” says O’Leary.
“The Ash cloud had an effect across the business, but it was a short term hard hit. We've never experienced anything like Covid, where all aspects of your business are wiped to zero overnight so it's a very challenging time for us,” she says.
January 2020 started off to be such a promising year with bumper trade before the rumblings of Covid began in February confirming the travel industry’s worst fears in March as the pandemic engulfed the world.
“We felt something big was coming, the indicators were there, and we began contacting people abroad to say, look, we're concerned that the borders may be closed, that there may be shutdowns, that it would be very difficult to repatriate them,” she explains.
They began bringing people home early. “We would have been a little bit ahead of the curve in that sense. We had a lot of our clients booked to be home or home when the government came out and actually announced that they were shutting down international travel,” says O’Leary.
Then the pandemonium started. As the Irish Government were only rolling the lockdown out a couple of weeks at a time it didn’t give O’Leary Travel or their clients any indication of when things may return to normal, or that a lengthy lockdown was on the cards.
“We had clients booked to travel in July, August and the nature of travel, you'd normally pay your balance, somewhere between twelve and six weeks prior to your departure, depending on the type of product you had. We were contacting people during this global pandemic, when they were all locked up in our homes, asking them to pay their balance,” she explains.
In order to get the refund back from suppliers, clients had to pay their full booking first because the suppliers were under no obligation to refund deposits for cancelled bookings. The balance needed to be paid first, trip cancelled then the clients were intitled to a full refund.
“The consumer protection legislation is very strong in travel but the suppliers, the tour operators and the airlines, just didn't have the money,” she says.
“I have to be honest and say that our Department of Transport or our Commission for Aviation Regulation we're not good enough on coming up with a solution quickly. They eventually did come up with a voucher scheme which the government backed for the bigger suppliers and that started to let some cash flow,” explains O’Leary.
By the turn of the year O’Leary Travel had sorted the majority of its outstanding business and during the third lockdown the team went into hibernation with little or no work to speak of.
“The reality in travel is we don't make €1 until the client travels,” says O’Leary. “For all the turnover that passes through our fingers, because of the legislation that's there to protect the consumer and their money, they're entitled to it all back up until the point of travel. It's been very challenging and it's going to remain challenging for all of 2021.”
O’Leary is keen not to dwell on the negative though, business has to move forward and at the moment they are open for bookings with the full transparency clients might not get the holiday they are used to.
Most are booking for some rest and relaxation and have been warned that pool time may be limited, and tourist attractions closed.
“In some resorts, you have to book into the pool and can only have three hours in the day, or the morning or the afternoon only, purely because they're trying social distancing around the pool,” she says. “And in some places the pools are closed because they're using pool area as overflow for tables for food so that they're able to socially distance the restaurant.”
“These are the kinds of decisions people have to make. Is this the holiday that you want? It is a really bizarre situation to be in as a travel agent. You're not actively dissuading people but by giving them honest feedback and advice on the way it is at the moment, you know that you are going to, by default, cause some of them not to book with you.”
O’Leary is looking longer term rather than a quick buck with this strategy. She believes this is not the year of the dot.com holiday. People need to get the right advice when travelling through Covid and if a booking goes array due to a change in circumstances, they need to have a voice at the end of the phone to help them home.
“We've been so successful for so long, as we treat everybody as if they're a family member and we tell them warts and all, the way we would our family member,” says O’Leary. “It’s really important to us that we maintain our integrity, or our brand is nothing.”