Australian small business and family enterprise ombudsman Kate Carnell is backing travel agents in calling on the government to provide a support package to the industry, which has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kate Carnell said close to 1,300 distressed travel agents have been “clinging by a thread” while waiting to hear whether the federal government will announce a support package.
“It’s clear these small businesses are in a world of pain and a support package should be announced as a matter of urgency,” Carnell said.
Travel agents were at the frontline when international travel halted in March and have since been working to secure refunds from suppliers, from cruises to airlines, on behalf of their clients.
More than half of travel agents say their revenue is down by more than 100%, according to a survey conducted by the small business ombudsman.
Speaking to SmartCompany, Spencer Group director Penny Spencer, who owns both leisure and corporate travel agencies, says COVID-19 has “decimated” the industry.
Spencer says travel agents have not received any targeted support from the government, but they have benefited from general support initiatives, including JobKeeper, payroll tax relief and rent or loan deferments.
“JobKeeper has been an amazing lifesaver. It certainly saved my staff, but it hasn’t saved my business,” Spencer says.
The Australian Federation of Travel Agents is lobbying the federal government for a $250 million package to support the industry’s 4,000 travel agents and the 40,000 Australians they employ.
Spencer says the package would obviously provide relief, but she doubts whether it would help all travel agents survive in the long-term.
“We still don’t really know because we don’t know how long the borders are going to be shut,” Spencer says.
Spencer says travel agents are currently “working for nothing” because not only did sales almost cease this year, but agents have also spent 2020 refunding last year’s sales.
“In the whole time of travel, have we have never had to refund everything. So all of those suppliers and the airlines are really struggling with the workload involved in refunding. It’s been really tough,” she says.
With restrictions on international travel likely to remain in place for some time, travel agents are among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why the industry is calling for targeted support.
Spencer says when travel does resume, everyone is going to need a travel agent, because navigating restrictions across different foreign countries is going to be complex.
“Travel agents are going to be really needed on the other side of this, and that’s the sad part, [because] we’ve got to survive to get there,” Spencer says.