With borders closed and destinations in lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit travel agents especially hard.
From the moment the virus began to impede the movement of people around the world, Australian travel agents began repatriating their clients, as well as rescheduling, rebooking, cancelling, amending and postponing their travel arrangements. Amid all of that, they've also been chasing refunds, credits and monies owed to their clients and suppliers.
It has been, without a doubt, the most challenging time in the industry's history.
But crises can bring out the very best in people like the team at ATAS-accredited Travelbay in Goonellabah in Northern New South Wales.
With restrictions tightening daily as the severity of the pandemic became clear around the world, the Travelbay team initially found itself modifying travel arrangements to keep clients travelling. But as the situation escalated, Operation Modify Holiday quickly became Operation Get Them Home.
"In early March 2020, a number of Travelbay customers were overseas. We were keeping an eye on the COVID-19 situation, but I don’t think anyone was quite prepared for not only how fast things would change, but how drastic the lockdown measures would be," recalls Travelbay Director, Nikki McKee.
The first serious signs of a squeeze came from two countries that went hard on the virus early—Vietnam and Singapore. "We had clients arrive in Vietnam for a family holiday on 8 March. Right up until that point, we were confident their holiday would go ahead as planned. We had been in regular contact with our team on the ground in Vietnam, and had no reason to believe otherwise. But just a few days later, the situation had shifted dramatically," says Nikki.
By 11 March the family had to leave Pu Luong in northern Vietnam early as the resort where they were staying was being closed. This was followed by the iconic Ha Long Bay shutting down on the 12th, and the family's planned cruise—a highlight for many who visit Vietnam—was cancelled.
With the family's blessing, Travelbay worked with its in-destination team and arranged an alternate itinerary—one, it turns out, that changed daily to comply with ever tightening travel regulations. Yet, despite the relentless efforts of the Travelbay team, the family ended up in quarantine for a short time at a hotel—the result of other guests having been in contact with people who had tested positive for COVID-19.
This was not the holiday they had planned.
"By the time they were given permission to leave Vietnam, the family had to change their flights home again. At every stage of the process, both our local team in Vietnam and the Travelbay team were in frequent, direct contact with the family," says Nikki.
It was a level of service the family was extremely grateful for.