Putting this piece together I looked at my Yule Blog from last year. In it, I talked about the ongoing Brexit uncertainty and, notwithstanding that, the prospect of a strong 2020. I remember well a discussion with a friend shortly after in January when I was saying that – remembering SARS and Foot and Mouth Disease – I had a concern that this new virus we were seeing in China could have a negative impact on travel, and we were debating whether Brexit or the virus would be more impactful on the travel industry. Little did we realise just how COVID-19 would shatter our personal and work lives, and our beloved industry.
I know how many of you have been impacted personally, as we have all seen friends and family affected, whether that’s through illness or worse, having to become teachers in our own homes, managing the simultaneous feelings of anger and relief that exams were cancelled, unable to travel internationally ourselves – and perhaps even discovering more of the UK on our holidays, and what a wonderful place it is to vacation here. There has also been an undeniable impact on our mental health, and perhaps it’s a good thing that we are able to be more open and accepting of this.
And of course, the horrifying and stark impact on our businesses, our colleagues and partners. At the back end of last year, we had been looking forward to a record year in 2020 – however we have seen from the latest official GDP figures that tour operators and DMCs had a drop in turnover of 90% (almost exactly replicating our own study), with suppliers being equally impacted.
Demand is there, as travellers want to use up credits from 2020, and the increased desire to travel and escape the mind-numbing isolation we have all suffered. But travellers have a choice of where they go and unless we can get a pre- and on-arrival competitive testing regime for the UK we may miss out to our competitors. With over 50% of all inbound traffic coming through an intermediary, we also need an active and buoyant DMC network, or we risk international operators switching destinations to where they have the functioning tour operators and DMCs they need. We know inbound travel can help drive the much-needed economic recovery, but inbound businesses need help to get through until we can do this.
And whilst the vaccine holds out real hope, we need to counter that optimism somewhat with the likely speed of roll out – and not just here in the UK for us, as we need effective and speedy vaccination programmes in our key source markets.
The year started with an excellent Convention in Bristol, even with the storm clouds building. As soon as the pandemic hit, we were one of the first associations to deliver virtual events and we have had considerable success with this channel since. We also recognised quickly that we would need to up our communications – to our members, yes, but also to media and politicians, and we quickly produced an excellent research project that looked at the impact of COVID-19 on DMCs and tour operators and backed this up with our Tourism Resilience Fund. Whilst movement has been frustratingly slow, this robust data and compelling argument continues to be the route for government to support our industry.
It has been sad, but inevitable, to see some members leave this year and we hope to welcome these businesses back in due course. And we have had strong success in recruiting new members and retaining existing members, as the value of being part of a strong community has become clearer than ever. The association’s profile is high, and our brand is strong as demonstrated by the significant media traction and good engagement with the highest level of government in Westminster and across the country.
Recovery for the industry will take time, and of course by the time you read this we may finally know whether we will be leaving the EU with or without a deal that will provide its own challenges – and perhaps some opportunities in the longer term. So it is all about survival until the sun shines again, and I am reminded that success can be as simple as holding on when others let go. As for recovery, there’s a saying about the best way to escape a bear in the woods is to simply run faster than your friends, so I hope you will be proactive in getting out, confirming rates and contracting the business for 2021 and 2022.
Many say that COVID-19 has changed the world forever – that may be true in some ways, but what will remain consistent is that people around the globe will continue to have a passionate (and possibly stronger than ever) desire and need to travel, to understand new cultures and build new memories of experiences in the UK.
I would like to thank the UKinbound team for their passion, hard work and determination this year, and also the Board for their direction, counsel and support this past year. And of course, you, our members, who have been there for us, as we have for you.
Inevitably Christmas will be very different this year, but I do hope you get to enjoy and to spend at least some time with your loved ones. And let’s all wish 2020 a solid goodbye, and welcome in a new year and new opportunities. Happy Christmas.