The travel industry has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, with flights cancelled, holiday firms going bust, staff losing jobs and customers angry at the way they’ve been treated by some companies.
But despite this, two travel businesses are confident enough to set-up shop now, despite the industry facing an uncertain future.
The Travel Journal, in Harrogate, North Yorkshire is opening its first shop in the city centre.
Travel agent Ben Poole, 37, decided to open his first travel agency shop in Harrogate
Meanwhile, Sunny Heart Travel is launching its travel agency online on the back of Thomas Cook’s collapse.
This is Money spoke to both the founders to find out just why they’ve decided to press ahead with plans despite a painful year for global travel.
The Travel Journal: Opening a physical shop
Travel agent Ben Poole, 37, decided to open his first shop in the Montpellier Quarter of Harrogate at the beginning of September after a retail space became free.
The Travel Journal started trading on 1 January with Ben, as the founder and only employee, working solely from home.
However, he had been waiting for an opportunity to purchase a shop space in the small independent sector of Harrogate town centre.
Ben, who has been a travel agent for over 20 years, said: ‘I was waiting for a retail space to come up and, what is quite surprising this day and age, is that there is a waiting list for retail units.
‘I got wind of one becoming available in July and it was a case of do it now or regret it later as the likelihood is another one wouldn’t come up in the near future.’
This may seem like a brave – or mad – choice when the world is facing a pandemic but Ben says he didn’t want to miss the opportunity.
‘On the surface, the timing looks interesting but it’s worked in my favour as I am responsible for me and my future.
‘There is no one else to make the decision about whether my job is in jeopardy or not as it is all in my own hands.’
Thomas Cook collapsed in September last year after shutting many of its physical stores
After starting the business at home at the beginning of the year, he faced a difficult time during lockdown where he says it was ‘panic stations from the word go’.
Most of his time was spent trying to sort out customers imminent departures, get arrangements in place to bring them home and assist cancellations.
At this time, unsurprisingly, there was no new enquiries but he said it was okay as he didn’t have large overheads. However, now, if lockdown happens again, he will.
Ben said: ‘As holidays were being booked from July, it made sense to open the shop.
‘Travel corridors gave people the confidence to book and things seemed to be going in the right direction. Before then, I hadn’t done any enquiries from March to July.’
Business has been good since July with many bookings being made.
He has now noticed certain trends from customers including last minute bookings and paying for exotic, long haul destinations holidays for next year.
‘More people are looking to use travel agents for security now.
‘It’s been a horrible learning curve for consumers as they are so used to booking online but this has re-educated them.
‘Many customers have told me how nice it is to deal with somebody face to face. It gives people confidence and they know they can contact me and I am accountable.’
He is understandably concerned about business going downhill if a second full lockdown occurs but says he is prepared for the worst.
‘It will take at least 12 months for confidence to come back and get to the stage where we can all travel freely to a certain extent.
‘But I am going to build a reputation for my business. We don’t know the future and it is out of our control so there in point in worrying.’
Sunny Heart Travel was set up last year by former employees of travel brand, Thomas Cook
Sunny Heart Travel: Ex-Thomas Cook staff launch firm
Sunny Heart Travel is another travel agency that is set to launch in mid-October.
Made up of ex-Thomas Cook staff, the five ex-employees registered the company in November 2019, using heart shaped sunglasses as their logo – a reference to their old employer who used to use similar signage.
Steve Bentzen, chief executive, said after Thomas Cook collapsed at the end of last September, former employees sat around and decided to pick up where the travel firm had left off.
Previously a programme manager at Thomas Cook, he said: ‘Obviously there was place in the market to take up customers Thomas Cook had and also to help out all the colleagues that were made redundant at the time.
Cheers!: Steve set up Sunny Heart Travel after losing his job with Thomas Cook
‘There are still a lot of people around who haven’t found a new job yet.’
Sunny Heart Travel now employees nine ex-Thomas Cook workers and is hoping to take on more once the website is up and running next month.
Initially it will be online only with a view to opening retail spaces in the future.
Steve said: ‘One of the big things is that Thomas Cook didn’t spend enough on online offering.
‘It put a lot of effort into retail but not into their website and if they had of done, they would have kept up.’
Sunny Heart currently doesn’t have a huge requirement to fill and is hoping to have 1,000 customers in the first month.
It has been privately funded with a small operational base so Steve says costs aren’t high to begin with.
‘We can survive a while without an influx of customers. We are hoping to grow organically and ride the market to see how it goes.
‘Initially, we will keep prices quite low and set margins on package holidays. Because we don’t have shareholders and a huge organisation to feed, we can keep prices down and control our customer base.’
Sunny Hearts focus is on good customer service which includes customers being able to get hold of the team 24/7 with Steve saying ‘the more you can add, the more people can use you.’
Sunny Heart Travel was formed by ex-Thomas Cook employees who lost their jobs last year
Currently, it only has entry level ATOL cover for 1,000 customers but once it has reached this limit, it will apply for a larger licence.
‘If we can get 1,000 customers in the first month then we’re off to a flying start and towards the end of the first month we can extend our ATOL cover.’
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Steve says the demand for holidays is still there, however, he believes that the coronavirus has to be eradicated before the travel industry will recover to what it once was.
‘It’s been a huge learning curve but we have people who know about the business side and we are going to drive the business forward.’
Thomas Cook has now been bought by Fosun, a Chinese company, and is being relaunched as an online-only holiday firm.
It will also not have any hotels or aircrafts like it once did.