TORONTO — Three tour operators, representing three of the Caribbean’s biggest markets – Canada, the UK and the U.S. – talked about how travel and their businesses specifically have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide-ranging Facebook Live discussion this morning, part of the CTO’s ‘Plain Speaking’ series.
While the three tour ops do business in very different markets – and in countries that are at wildly different stages of managing the COVID-19 crisis – all three executives offered frank assessments and insights relevant to the entire industry.
Bob Thye, Senior VP, Revenue Management at Apple Leisure Group, Paul Cleary, CEO and Owner of Caribtours and Aizaz Sheikh, Director of Marketing, G Adventures, all took part. Here’s what they had to say …
BOB THYE, APPLE LEISURE GROUP, U.S.A.
In a good year, says Thye, U.S. tour operator juggernaut Apple Leisure Group (with 14 brands including Apple Vacations, Funjet Vacations and United Vacations, and resort company AMResorts) carries 3.3 million passengers annually. This year will be different. The pandemic “has been nothing short of devastating to our business,” Thye says.
Early on, in mid-March, ALG made quick decisions with its charter airline partners to cancel departures. All the cancellations and upheaval that followed “really became a culture for us of shared sacrifice, to preserve the business and come out of this in one piece,” says Thye.
Looking forward, he says ALG is cautiously optimistic about bookings. “We have about two dozen resorts and hotels open in Mexico and the D.R. Rebookings and new bookings have been coming in and they’re surprisingly close in. We do see indications that people want to travel, and closer in that you might expect.”
Asked about the coming winter, Thye said ALG is looking very carefully at operating a charter program, though obviously not as large a program as usual. “Travel agents love to book our charters,” he said.
As for the refund versus future travel credits situation, Thye said: “It’s not just the travel industry. I can’t get Best Buy to give me a refund on an electronic I bought a month ago.”
Thye acknowledged that the U.S. is waging a war against COVID-19 right now at a time when many other countries are opening back up. “We have some hotspots in the U.S. and of course that’s very concerning.”
Asked by Facebook Live moderator Johnson JohnRose, Communications Specialist for the CTO, if Thye thinks there’s a “negative posture” from some Caribbean islands towards the U.S. because of its rising COVID-19 numbers, Thye said, “I hope not. The Caribbean and the U.S. have such a long and important partnership.”
Up until March ALG was a traditionally profitable company, says Thye. “We’ve taken a very significant hit to that. Since mid-March all activity has been net-negative.”
Thye said that no matter what happens, ALG is bullish on the Caribbean, and beyond. “Travel is the lifeblood of human existence. That hasn’t gone away. We ultimately believe we will get through this. Travel is an amazing growth industry. Long-term, we’re very bullish.”
AIZAZ SHEIKH, G ADVENTURES, CANADA
The pandemic “has evened the playing field for everyone,” says Sheikh. On the heels of launching G Adventures’ new Travel with Confidence Plus Collection, Sheikh says the company is now focusing on building consumer confidence.
Asked about having to furlough G Adventures employees, Sheikh said: “We’re a travel company, but we’ve always prided ourselves on being a culture company too. So to have to cut a chunk of our staff, it was really, really tough. We had to do it decisively and quickly to make sure we were still in business.”
To the Caribbean specifically, from the Canadian market, he says search activity is up. “We’re looking at the numbers two, three times a day to see what the day’s like, and they’re definitely up.”
To help build consumer confidence, Sheikh says G Adventures is telling travellers to “book your bubble”, noting that G Adventures trips are available as private tours.
As for 2020 as a whole, Sheikh spoke frankly, showing that G Adventures has been negatively impacted by the coronavirus crisis just like everyone else. “On Jan. 31 we had our biggest day of all time. And then there have definitely been days we’ve had no revenue whatsoever.”
PAUL CLEARY, CARIBTOURS, UK
Cleary, CEO and Owner of the UK-based Caribtours, says that “in the past four months we’ve probably learned more about ourselves than in the past 41 years.”
Like most tour operators Caribtours does the majority of its business in the winter months, about 65%. So the timing of COVID-19 could have been worse, but the impact has still been unfathomable. “It’s been terrible,” says Cleary. “But I feel like we are emerging out of it. I actually feel quite optimistic about everything.”
He says Caribtours had to start thinking like a start-up when the whole crisis hit. “We had to look at labour costs, overhead, everything. It happened really quickly and the severity and speed and how long this thing has stayed with us takes one’s breath away.”
In the UK, which is already on the way to opening back up, with fewer travel restrictions to 59 countries on its green-light list, demand is starting to pick up for outbound travel, says Cleary. “The pent up demand is palpable. Bookings started coming in in June. Granted they’re mostly forward bookings, for January 2021, February 2021. But I’ll take it.”
One of the toughest balancing acts right now, even more so than usual, is airlift and resort operations, and demand. “It really is a chicken-and-egg situation,” says Cleary. “So many resorts [in the Caribbean] are remaining closed. I think we’re making some mistakes here. Other destinations are opening up and our clients are falling all over themselves to get on those planes, to places like Greece.”
JohnRose asked Cleary if he thought Caribbean resorts and islands that don’t reopen could lose out. “I do. The hotels will reopen when it’s safe for them to reopen, don’t get me wrong. But especially in Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, we need resorts to be guest-ready, and I’d love to say by October. We could have a mini-peak season.”
Asked about the controversy surrounding tour operators who have not yet paid Caribbean resorts, Cleary said, “there are four major tour operators who haven’t been paying their bills [to the resorts]. That needs to be sorted out.”
Some resorts are starting to use strong tactics on all tour operators in light of the no-payment situation, “and that’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
Cleary says his company has written off 2020 “as a bad year. Now we’re dusting off our marketing plans. We’re through the worst of it.”