Clare Davis is an independent travel counsellor working under the Travel Counsellors banner, putting together bespoke travel packages for individual and business clients. We interviewed her about her role and the issues currently facing clients and the industry.
Q. What sort of enquiries and concerns are people approaching you with at the moment?
A. Because of the uncertainty and frequently-changing advice coming out of government bodies, like the UK’s Foreign, Commonweath and Development Office (FCDO), clients are asking questions about whether they are able or allowed to travel, what the quarantine requirements will be, and what to expect going through airports, for example. But they also want to know what will it be like when they get there? Will they be able to go to restaurants, what are the rules on mask-wearing, will they be able to go out freely or visit people they’re planning to see?
The idea of masks doesn’t seem to be perturbing people, but obviously quarantine does affect people’s decision. As a Travel Counsellor, I tell people to avoid a trip involving quarantine because we follow FCDO advice closely, and the current guidance is not to travel to countries requiring quarantine.
Q. What are the most important things travellers should consider if planning a trip right now?
A. Book flexible tickets wherever possible, and before you buy make sure you know any ticket restrictions on changing your plans. Check your trip is in line with the official advice from your country’s government. Make sure your travel insurance covers you for COVID-19. It is possible to get cover now for that. Booking through certain companies, like ours, means you will be covered too if you are denied boarding, and that someone will be on hand 24/7 in case you’re displaying symptoms or need to make last minute changes. Book with someone you know, like and trust so they can look after you.
Q. What are the most urgent things the travel industry needs to do to build consumer confidence in the wake of such uncertainty?
A. I think some travellers may lack confidence because of the constantly changing advice coming from official sources, so a lot could be done at that level to ensure messages do not seem confusing or chaotic. I don’t think the UK government, for example, is listening or consulting at all with the travel industry. So many businesses have already collapsed. Lobbying is taking place with people like the Travel Trade Gazette, under a #savetravel hashtag.
Customers need reassurance right now, so a key thing for all who work in the industry is that customer service is a high priority. Travellers increasingly want to know that there’s someone like a travel counsellor there, to speak up for them personally and sort out problems. I hear of a lot of people who are just left without any advice or left hanging on a webchat.
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Q. What’s the most extreme consequence you’ve ever seen of someone not preparing their trip thoroughly?
A. I haven’t had any real disasters, but I have known people who don’t take travel insurance and have ended up with thousands of pounds of medical bills. When my clients don’t want to take insurance, I remind them that if they even have to go into hospital for a minor complaint, things can go wrong and they could end up with large debts.
I had a client who asked me to help with a trip to Australia. She booked with someone else eventually because she was price-driven, but she ended up stranded in Australia during the pandemic when all the flights were grounded. We had so many of our own clients that I wasn’t able to book them for her unfortunately, but I was able to tell her where there were flights available. Under normal circumstances I would have been able to help more.
Q. What’s the most extraordinary trip you’ve ever planned for someone?
A. I really love complex, tailor-made trips because they give me something to get my teeth into. A couple last year did a three-month trip over at least six different countries, and I looked after their flights, hotels and other accommodation, car hire, tickets to the Dubai World Cup – which is a Blue Riband horse-racing event – and several excursions. They kept in touch with me throughout. When they were in Dubai they found the race tickets weren’t ready for them, so I was able to sort that out and when they came back to the hotel the tickets were there waiting. I enjoy planning travel that is hard to pull together but rewarding!
Q. As someone who works in travel, what’s YOUR ideal trip away?
A. This changes all the time! Short haul, it was Seville at the start of the year and I had booked a trip for August. Sadly we were unable to travel due to Spain being placed back on the quarantine list. I would love to do a trip to Thailand, incorporating Bangkok, Elephant Hills and a beach destination.
Q. What destinations do you particularly recommend right now, and why?
A. Because I’m based in the UK, I’m mainly recommending domestic travel. If you’d asked me a fortnight ago, I might have said Greece, but clearly there are concerns now. Moving forward, I would be encouraging people to consider the Caribbean perhaps from December onwards, because, so far, the Caribbean doesn’t seem as badly affected.
I would also recommend Krakow as a good European, winter destination. I have clients travelling there over the next couple of months and I am booked to go there at the start of December too. The numbers in Poland are low and there are currently no quarantine restrictions. I’m looking towards next summer for quite a few clients whose travel plans came unstuck this year – mainly European destinations.
Q. Are there any positive lessons in the long-term that can be taken from the problems facing the industry?
A. I think the industry will come out stronger and travel will become more and more a personal process – rather than merely transactional. More companies will be moving in the direction of giving people the reassurance I spoke of, that someone will be there and any problems will be resolved.
In terms of sustainability, my role is more as a tour operator, not an agent who works with third-party suppliers. So, the system shows me which suppliers are accredited with sustainability credentials, for example. Short-term I think fewer people will be flying or travelling long-haul. I have been asked to off-set people’s carbon emissions from flying and, I have to say, it wasn’t as easy as it should have been.
I am seeing some people who just want to postpone making plans until everything is ‘safe’, and others who are desperate to travel as soon as they can. It seems like a 50/50 split between people wanting to travel and those who don’t. Until it’s settled down, I think a lot of people will just sit tight. But I do think eventually the industry will go back to where it was because people love to travel.