HUNTER travel agencies are urging the federal government to extend JobKeeper and consider other "survival packages" for their sector, with one operator warning many will go to the wall without ongoing assistance.
The alarm bell comes just days after Qantas shed 6000 jobs and its chief executive Alan Joyce urged Scott Morrison to extend the JobKeeper stimulus or offer an alternative for those industries hit hardest by Covid-19.
Hunter businesswomen Julia van Huisstede and her sister-in-law Karen van Huisstede own two I Talk Travel agencies in Maitland and The Junction. They have managed to retain all but one of their 16 staff since coronavirus closed airlines and borders but say the blowback from the federal government's extension of the travel ban to September could prove dire for the retail travel industry, which they said had been "annihilated".
"I am a positive person, I know that travel will resume in the future when it is safe to do so and I trust that our government has our nation's best interests at heart," Julia van Huisstede said.
"We have consolidated as a business and will fight for our beloved industry and the business that we have built up over 14 years because our staff and our clients are worth it but the reality is we simply won't survive without further and ongoing support.
Mrs van Huisstede said that travel agencies now had "no product" and could not reinvent themselves like many businesses, for example restaurants pivoting to takeaway services.
"With planes grounded and borders closed internationally and within our own country, we have been left with zero income," she said. "As restrictions have eased and many businesses have been able to re-open ... we remain at a standstill.'
Mrs van Huisstede has written a letter on behalf of the retail travel industry to Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon, who has written in turn to the federal treasurer to appeal for the extension of JobKeeper.
International travel from Australia is banned until September, however some travel routes may be exempt prior. NSW residents can travel to Victoria and the ACT, with South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory slated to open in July.
While acknowledging official efforts to promote domestic travel, Julia van Huisstede is disappointed with government authorities for failing to promote retail travel agents for bookings and "pushing clients" to websites and online travel agencies to secure Australian getaways.
"This is not helping us at all, and the online companies that many are turning to are not Australian-owned and operated but rather based in overseas countries and call centres being also off-shore," she said.
While domestic travel, and limited services to New Zealand, helped, Mrs van Huisstede said there was not enough demand to sustain all travel agencies.
"As we near the end of the three-month mark since Covid-19 hit our shores, it's important that I point out that our industry felt not only the immediate effects of Covid-19 with the border closures but much earlier than the rest of the country with us having been cancelling bookings and simply not taking bookings from mid-January 2020. We experienced significant income loss months before our 'wings were taken away from us'," she said.
Mrs van Huisstede said with consumer confidence low and no travel insurance to cover Covid-19, booking future holidays was not an option for many. And with no hard confirmation of when borders will reopen, she said travel agencies were at a "standstill" with no income as they dealt with lengthy administration to refund "millions" of dollars to clients forced to cancelled holidays.
She is grateful for JobKeeper and small grants that have kept her operating, but says many agencies may not survive for much longer without continued assistance.
"We have been advised that JobKeeper will end on September 27 and many of our landlords only provided three months' rent reprieve which ends in a few weeks. The realisation of our business closure or the imminent loss of our staff who will have to then seek JobSeeker funding is near if we don't take action," she said.
Brett Dann, CEO of Hunter Travel Group, the biggest private and locally-owned travel group in Newcastle, said his industry was set to enjoy one of its best years before Covid-19 hit.
With supply and demand drying up, HTG implemented a business continuity and disaster plan in its 10 Newcastle agencies and 26 joint-venture stores in Australia.
"The first priority was to look after our clients, who were stranded everywhere. We activated our crisis team and worked for 72 hours to locate them," Mr Dann said. "The team was running reports, physically locating clients ... then triaging the thousands of bookings we had. It was no different to the health system, we had to look at each person, they are not numbers."
Mr Dann said HTG was focused on rebookings or, if clients had cancelled, fighting for refunds.
"While some people are blaming agents, we are stuck in a situation where we are driven by policy of airlines, cruise lines, hotels, they have the money, we have to get it back," he said.
Mr Dann said the company had negotiated with its landlords and was eyeing forward bookings to monitor consumer sentiment.
"Because of our structure, our board, governance, finance, we've worked through it carefully, but it's quite challenging because we don't know when things will change," he said.
In March, prior to JobKeeper, HTG for the first time in its 21-year history forecast nil revenue for a six-month period. It then stood down some of its 190 staff or reduced their hours.
"It was heartbreaking but everyone knew we had to do this to survive. Our 'one in, all in approach' was supported by the team, which has been amazing," Mr Dann said.
HTG shifted its operations online during lockdown but its flagship agency in Hunter Street has since reopened alongside all its agencies.
Mr Dann said JobKeeper had been a "saviour" for the industry, saving many family-run agencies from folding.
"We are thankful we could access it, and other government incentives, as it meant that we were able to support our entire team's return to work, albeit on reduced working hours. The positive thing is that with JobKeeper everyone is now working again," he said.
He said HTG had pivoted to "where customers desire", focusing on destinations where clients could travel safely. "We've worked to make sure the deals that we develop are better than what you get direct. It's a unique chance to travel locally and we want to help the regions."
Mr Dann said if JobKeeper was not extended, and borders reopened, "real jobs and livelihoods" were at risk.
He says the subsidy should be reviewed to ensure those industries who need it most are receiving it and those who do not, do not benefit. He also supports all borders reopening in Australia because of the economic damage: "Yes, you have to manage and work with outbreaks but borders should not have closed."
Mr Dann believes the industry will emerge "bigger and better": "We will have grown because we have done the right thing for our clients, and hopefully consumer sentiment will support that."
Jayes Travel Newcastle general manager Michelle Barker said JobKeeper had allowed agencies to keep operating as they scrambled to adjust: "We've redone all our processes, pivoted and remained connected with clients and we are seeing more bookings and enquiries every week," she said.
She believes JobKeeper should be extended but says the onus is also on agencies to adapt where they can.
"We're booking 2021, 2022 and have changed our structure to ensure our service fees are taken at point of booking to ensure we are being paid for the time that it takes to book the holiday, which allows us to keep us operating and growing," she said. "Nobody wants their dream holiday cancelled or postponed, but with staff focusing on taking all the stress away ... we have very grateful clients."
Mrs Baker said JobKeeper's removal would prompt "staff changes", but "by no means would it mean closing our doors."
Jayes Travel is focusing on the domestic market and working with companies who offered a "a peace of mind policy", allowing clients to book holidays without the risk of "losing it all' if borders did not open in time.
"Our doors are open and we are getting the constant feedback from existing and new clients - they are ready to book and ready to travel, it's now just a question of when," Mrs Barker said.
She believes things will pick up quickly when borders open but said clients were concerned about issues including potential quarantining: "These are the unanswered questions for our government and travel insurance companies that we'd love to see a policy on," she said.
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