Expert Analysis from Siobhan Byrne Learat, Founder and CEO, Adams & Butler. This article has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.
Last year, I wrote for IoD Ireland about the trials and tribulations of a travel company entering the unknown world of COVID. I had been advised at the time that it would have been better for me to pack up shop and sell. The advice was pertinent. Over the year, we lost €400,000 of the reserves I had kept in the company to entice future international buyers. In theory, we have had eighteen months of hell, but in reality, there were a lot of people and bodies holding our hands and helping us through. Our team culture, deep friendships, and the pure human decency of our stakeholders, lifted our spirits and allowed us to believe we were part of something bigger, and illuminated a path we would have to take. We did not feel that we were alone or abandoned.
A new word came into the travel industry parlance – ‘reworking’ – which is when we take a booking that needs to be postponed and rebook it - often many times - for a future date at no extra charge. To avoid cancellations, we decided to have a goodwill policy which gave 100% credit if people postponed. It was a strategy that worked well. We didn’t haemorrhage cash. There was often a lack of clarity on exactly when, and to whom, we would reopen, and it was those tiny little things such as an outdated Government website not reflecting an announcement that sent us over the edge. Our clients are travel agents abroad and they would vent their frustration on us when we couldn’t stand over a press release with a verifying link. Even semi-state bodies felt this angst. They suffered too. Trying to keep everything up to date. It was new territory for us all. It was evident that everyone was doing their best to keep Irish companies ticking over. And they have… I think the Government and all the semi-state bodies have done us proud.
When I hear the horror stories of similar companies like us abroad, it is heart wrenching. Good decent people doing their best to survive with valid business strategies and propositions not receiving an ounce of government support. We were blessed with the various supports, grants and loans that were made accessible to most of us. They enabled us to keep on all our staff, at first on a part-time basis but now back to full-time. One of the team left to return to the USA and we replaced her by hiring an intern who had worked like a trojan during her three months’ internship, consistently wowing us with her can-do attitude, which is exactly what you need when your world is falling apart.
I say most of us, not all. My own son pivoted his permaculture and organic food business when the farmers’ markets were closed and started doing home deliveries. His revenue remained the same, which rendered him unsuitable for grants and supports, but his costs sky-rocketed, as each sale cost more in both terms of time and costs to complete. He couldn’t afford to pay his part-time workers, so he lost his staff and worked 16-hour days, seven days a week himself, in the end having a horrific accident which he is still recovering from. Most other sole traders were eventually rescued by the Government when they saw loopholes in the system, but there must be a few others like my son who were unfortunately caught in a trap.
Virtual and Reality
But we also had lots of wonderful moments that I will cherish. Clients ringing me to express their friendship and to tell me how much they appreciate me in their life. We meet people at trade-fairs worldwide year-in and year-out and think of them just as work colleagues, but then, when we are faced with the prospect of not seeing them for a long time or perhaps never again, we realise that those casual meetings were indeed deep and lasting friendships that enriched our lives. By the time you read this, I will have attended my first live trade fair in the USA, and I know we will probably be tearful that we survived and are all back together again. We are a very empathetic, emotional bunch in the travel industry - after all, we orchestrate people’s dreams!
We decided to be proactive during Covid, so we did as many virtual trade fairs as we could. This was at times daunting, presenting at 2am or 3am to the Aussies! We also ran a weekly series of live webinars, which often had 400+ people in attendance. These were usually filmed on mobiles on the ground, featuring guides, experiences, and the owners of properties in a chatty, informal interactive manner. We gave a glimpse into what clients could enjoy: showing how to kiss the Blarney Stone properly, having a glass of whiskey with the Jameson family, soaring over castles and mountains through a camera perched on an eagle’s head, live safaris and sunset cruises in Africa, bush breakfasts, ice-plunging in the Arctic circle, forest bathing, and having a sauna in a hotbox on a deserted Irish beach. Since we started, we have had over 43,000 attendees. Some of the attendees wrote and told us that those weekly catch-ups were the highlight of their week, especially during lockdown.
All these new activities and our new website paid off, as we are getting a lot of enquiries from agents we have never heard of before. I also received two awards for my travails: Travel + Leisure A-List Advisor and Conde Nast Travel Specialist 2021 and was elected to the International Marketing Committee of Virtuoso in the USA, which is huge in our industry, and to their EMEA Board. We were also a runner-up in the Green Awards and in the SFA Awards. Our webinars got us noticed. Last week, a client asked us to do a series of three virtual live philanthropic webinars in Zimbabwe. It was wonderful to see the interest and excitement of underprivileged children in North Carolina glued to the videos being streamed live from the bush. We also had the children in North Carolina talking directly with the children at a school in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. It was a feel-good project that was pure win-win and brought joy to us all.
We have staggered those working in the office. Despite what everyone says, I think there is no substitute for townhall meetings with the team, when you are together creativity bounces off people’s energy, you don’t really get that on Zoom no matter how much we think otherwise. It is a wonderful substitute but not the same. You miss out on body language and the nuances that don’t convey virtually. Newer members of the team learn by example and by random discussions in a real office setting that isn’t possible virtually. Culture suffers without tactility.
Seeing the Light
New trends emerged. Our clients post-COVID have a higher appreciation for the rawness and splendour of off-the-beaten-track places and coastlines, of nature, of islands and of Africa. It’s like coming home after the traumatic effect COVID has had on our lives. It’s real and we all need real and authenticity now. Contrived experiences, though perfect and idyllic, are a thing of the past. They don’t reflect the new values in a new post-COVID world. We found that sustainability and responsible travel is being mentioned more by clients asking us to do stuff that is unique and not the usual - taking footfall away from over-visited parks and reserves to lesser-known gems, enabling smaller local communities and businesses to survive and thrive. Bucket list trips are also being mentioned. Clients also want to meet real people when they travel, who have real lives and they are quite happy to travel solo instead of waiting for friends or family to commit.
Thankfully, enquiries have started coming in although some clients are still postponing afraid of the new variant’s growth but, overall, we are in a much better place that we were 18 months ago.
We can see that light.