Australian travellers are finally feeling emboldened enough to venture out again. Location tracing has helped manage Coronavirus outbreaks, and vaccinations are gradually being rolled out across the country. Now, as the threat of infection and lockdowns lessen, Aussies are starting to hit the road, sky and sea again in the hopes of quenching their thirst for adventure, luxury and R&R.
With a full re-opening of international destinations still nowhere in sight, Australians are wisely using this time to holiday domestically. However, travellers should be aware that things may not be the same as they were pre-COVID. Venturing out across the country may not be as simple as it once was. Travellers should also note that booking travel arrangements will likely be different from what they are used to.
I chatted with Jodie Land, Owner and Director of The Well Connected Traveller, a boutique travel consultancy in Perth, about the impact of the pandemic on her business, her clients and travel in general. She shares her tips for travelling around Australia and reducing travel related financial risks as the pandemic starts to ease.
The effects of Coronavirus on the Australian travel industry
Q Jodie, how did the onset of the pandemic affect your travel business and what were the reactions of your clients and team?
A I remember receiving calls in February (2020) from people who were concerned with comments from China. One client requested that their trip be cancelled and suggested that I should stock up my pantry. At the time I thought that sounded extreme.
We had just hired two new team members and were finalising travel arrangements for a major client that was planning a large corporate event in the United States. That’s when everything turned upside down.
By the end of March, all travel was grounded and every single booking we had was either cancelled or held in credit. We all thought it would be over by about July so many people initially postponed until then.
Soon all of our time was spent helping clients cancel their bookings. It was very difficult to get hold of our travel suppliers and wholesalers as many of them had to lay off their staff immediately. My team members would sometimes sit on hold for 3 hours chasing a single refund, and they’re still doing that to this day. Our fees and overheads don’t cover that kind of time so we were working for free. But that’s what we do! We help our clients.
Most people were really understanding of the challenges we were facing and very supportive. Some even offered to help us. I’m so grateful for that but it was a scary time. People were anxious and fearing for their livelihood – my clients, my team and myself!
Q You have managed to keep your business operating throughout the pandemic in spite of it all. That’s impressive. I’ve read that hundreds of small travel agencies across the country have closed their doors for good. How did you manage to keep yours open?
A Well I wouldn’t exactly say my doors are open! (*laughing*) We had to vacate our office at the end of June 2020. My landlord was kind enough to offer me free rent for the first little while but when they grounded travel, the first thing I did was aim to reduce fixed costs. My team and I all started working from home as soon as we were able to set that up.
Accessing Jobkeeper payments was the next challenge. It was a bit tricky to apply for, but once it came through it really saved the day. Without Jobkeeper, I would have had to close up shop and there would have been no way to help our clients with their refunds. I am very grateful for that financial support.
I can also say with confidence that The Well Connected Traveller has staying power due to our point of difference in the travel industry. We specialise in booking travel with reward points from frequent flyer and other rewards programs. The great thing about booking with points is that they are just like cash when it comes to making bookings, but they can be refunded quickly and easily in the event of an emergency. Cash purchases are not so easy to refund. The ability to book with points gave our clients the confidence to book, knowing they could change their travel arrangements at a moment’s notice and not lose out.
Q Where do things sit now? Do you anticipate the travel industry being back to normal within the next year or so?
A We are currently managing another wave of booking cancellations and refunds due to the recent lockdowns in Victoria, but as I always say, ‘it is what it is’. You can’t get upset about things that you have no control over. We’re just handling any curve balls day by day and remaining hopeful that things will stabilise soon.
From where I’m sitting though, I expect many changes for the travel industry going forward. Airlines are doing their best by offering flexibility with flights, but they have been forced to cut commissions for travel consultants. This will affect both large and small travel agencies. I expect that the future of the travel industry will be based on ‘fee for service’. Agencies that didn’t previously charge much or at all for their time and expertise will likely have to.
Q What’s next for The Well Connected Traveller?
A I have been looking at diversifying our services. We spent a lot of time providing tailored assistance to our clients over the past year and we’re finding that many could use that type of support on an ongoing basis. We’re currently developing and trialling a virtual administration service for those who need a part time admin with travel expertise. Clients are welcome to contact us about it now if they would like to join our trial group.
Otherwise, we plan to keep doing what we’re doing! People will never stop wanting to travel and we are in a great position for recovery. Our strength is in our unique network, built over many years in the business and we’re working with our travel partners to ensure that our service and options remain strong.
Our clients want us to stay in business because they don’t want to manage their own reward points and book their own travel. We take an incredible amount of work off their plates and provide an outstanding service. They say things like, “We know that when we give you something, the whole lot will be looked after properly,” and, “We trust you. We don’t want to have to do what you do on our own.”
Another said, “I can always count on you to answer the phone. It’s just good old fashioned customer service.”
I am proud of that. Our clients keep coming back because we always show up for them. It’s the most important thing for us. Their holidays are our holidays because we live it with them right up until they come home. My team and I have stuck it out because we genuinely love what we do.
5 Tips For Traveling Australia In 2021 And Beyond
Q: Jodie, what recommendations do you have for travellers now that state restrictions are lifting and people are getting out there?
A: It’s wonderful that Australians are excited to travel Australia. Where before people would go overseas for their holidays, now they’re booking trips to destinations in our own country that they’ve always wanted to see but hadn’t got around to. There are a few challenges to contend with though so my advice is to:
Book with points whenever possible
I recommend that travellers book with points if they can. In the event that there is a lockdown or a need to change plans, points can be easily and quickly refunded back to the traveller. You don’t get that same benefit from booking with cash.
Check the COVID policy
We are seeing accommodation providers changing their policies around COVID cancellations and refunds. Some will no longer offer refunds if circumstances change and will only hold bookings in credit. The issue there is that properties are filling fast as Australians are anxious to get out and holiday. Credit is usually only valid for 1, maybe 2 years so rebooking a cancelled trip then becomes more challenging.
I recommend that travellers always check their accommodation’s COVID-19 policy prior to booking to make sure it works for their situation. Also, don’t pay in full at the time of booking if you can avoid it. Only pay a deposit with the remainder due closer to your check-in date. This approach could reduce your financial risk in the event of a snap lockdown.
Check border restrictions
Always check the border restriction of the state(s) you’re planning to enter well in advance and then regularly up until your date of travel. Each state has its own unique restrictions which change depending on evolving circumstances. As travel consultants, we check these regularly so that we can advise our clients of any updates.
When I say pre-book everything, I mean everything! If travellers would like to book a bucket-list item, my recommendation is to do it yesterday. We are finding that many highly sought after properties and experiences are already booked out through 2022. Experiences in Exmouth and the Kimberley are filling up. Accommodation all along the Gibb River Road is booked out and you can’t really just head down to Margaret River on a whim anymore and expect to find a place to stay.
In the east, if you’re looking at Hamilton Island, make sure you book your tours and restaurants. For Lord Howe Island, I recommend booking your flights and Capella Lodge now. We’re seeing the smaller boutique properties booking out well in advance.
Superyacht cruises must also be booked well in advance. Luckily most have very good COVID policies. My final tip is for the Sapphire Lodge in Tasmania – make sure you book the spa!
Navigate what you want to do beforehand and book ahead – whether it’s restaurant reservations, a spa visit or a nanny. You can’t just show up and expect to get into hotels, motels, restaurants or attractions right now so if you would like some help planning your Australian getaway, please contact us.
Stay in the city
While the more rural, beach and adventure experiences are increasingly difficult to book these days, there are some excellent deals to be had in the city. Properties that usually have a high volume of business travellers are not getting the same traffic at the moment. Travellers can get an excellent deal on a staycation at a luxury hotel in the city, spend a day at the spa and enjoy high tea for much less than usual. That’s something we recommend right now for romantic getaways or other celebrations.
Q: Thanks for sharing your insights Jodie. Do you have any final thoughts?
A: Yes! I would like to encourage Australians to ‘shop small’ and support local businesses. With the closure of so many small travel consultancies around Australia, there will be a gap in the market once travel resumes – a gap that could easily be filled by large foreign companies. Remember that by supporting small Australian businesses, you’re helping your neighbours and our local economy. I’d like to thank everyone who has supported us through these challenging times.
Post By Andrea @ SUMMON Creative