The Covid-19 pandemic has been tough for everyone, and as the country takes steps to a return to some more normal activities, I would like to share my thoughts on what has happened and what might come. I am thankful that everyone at Llama Travel has been fine, and no one here has been badly affected by the virus directly. My heart goes out to all who have suffered loss due to this disease. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this has brought about the toughest period in the near-twenty year history of Llama Travel, and in the travel industry in general.
I won’t go into the details of repatriating all our customers when travel restrictions were being imposed in March, suffice to say that many of us at Llama Travel had very little sleep for ten days as we rearranged flights to get all our customers back to the UK from Latin America and Africa. But thanks to an amazing effort by the team here, and our partners around the world, we managed to get everyone back before borders closed, including from cruise ships in Patagonia, lodges in the Amazon rainforest and mobile safari camps in the Okavango Delta. We were all very touched by the kind words of our customers once they returned to the UK.
As it became clear that travel would be disrupted for quite some time, we also set about contacting the many customers who would not be able to take their holidays in the weeks following travel restrictions being imposed. The sales team was busier than ever, albeit cancelling holidays rather than taking bookings, and doing this whilst working from home. I did wonder how other travel companies were managing to put staff on furlough so early, given how much work we had to do!
There was much discussion among travel companies and travel bodies about where the responsibility lay for cancelled holidays and who would pay. The Package Travel Regulations were clear: if a holiday could not operate, the tour operator must offer customers the option of a full refund. But did the regulations apply in this case? Or was this a case for travel insurance? Or were customers themselves liable? Travel bodies sought clarification from the government, which did not come.
We took the decision that customers had paid us for holidays that could not be delivered, and so were entitled to a refund of the money they had paid us. We therefore offered all customers the option of either rebooking a 2021 holiday at no extra cost or receiving a full refund. We are pleased that so many customers have delayed their holidays, but understand that for many people this is not possible or desirable. In total, we have refunded over two million pounds to customers who were not able to travel. Every time I wrote a cheque, I had to remind myself that I was returning money to customers for whom we could not offer the holiday booked. It was not our money!
We are fortunate to have excellent relationships with our suppliers in Latin America and Africa, and they have been very understanding of our customers’ situation, being flexible with their conditions. Nevertheless, we have paid for many services for which we will not get refunds, including flight tickets, which means that we will incur large costs that we cannot recover. We are very lucky in having adequate funds so that this situation will not impair our ability to resume operations once the current situation is behind us. We have had many good years recently, and have put money aside for a rainy day, even if we couldn’t quite imagine a storm of this magnitude.
I know that many travel companies are not in such a fortunate position and have not offered their customers refunds. Many of these companies have said that offering refunds would put them in dire straits and have offered customers ‘Refund Credit Notes’ instead, vouchers for a future booking, delaying the need to pay refunds. Unfortunately, some companies have simply used this situation, and the impossibility of enforcing regulations at the moment, to deny customers their legal right to a refund. In this covid wild west, I have wondered if we have made the right call in offering refunds, and if companies that have been much less flexible will be in a better position once this situation is over. But morally, I would not have been happy to make that decision. We have always run Llama Travel based on doing right by our customers and this has served us well as a business, so I cannot imagine that by changing that now we would really benefit. There might be a short term financial gain, but I think we would be doing so much damage to what Llama Travel stands for, and what our customers expect, that it would be a bad business decision. We have received such good feedback from customers during this situation that I believe we will benefit in the long run as people will know that they can trust us, and the majority of customers who have asked for a refund have said that they will rebook with us once they decide to travel again.
Instead of spending our time arguing with customers over refunds and trying to find ways out of our obligations, we are using this time to plan even better holidays than before the pandemic. I want to make sure that once we start to welcome customers on holiday again, the experience will be the best we can make it. We are reviewing everything we offer to see how we can improve it, and seeing what else we can offer that we know that our customers will love.
It’s encouraging that we are getting new customers booking their holidays for next year, and we will continue to offer flexible conditions whilst travel restrictions continue. We are longing for customers to be travelling in Latin America and Africa once more, and we hope that this will be possible before too long. It’s good news that some travel restrictions are starting to be lifted, but I know that the situation worldwide is still uncertain, so we will be cautious before we start to operate holidays again.
This situation has been difficult for Llama Travel, but throughout we have tried to look after our customers, our suppliers and our staff as best we can. Because we know that once the pandemic is over, it is our customers, our suppliers and our staff that will mean that Llama Travel continues to be so successful.