Travel agencies hanging on by a wing and a prayer

Happier times: Leonie Ivey, James Cracknell and Marnie Wade celebrating Windsong Travel's Gold Choice Award in November 2019
Happier times: Leonie Ivey, James Cracknell and Marnie Wade celebrating Windsong Travel's Gold Choice Award in November 2019

The travel industry has been hard hit by the coronavirus due to state border closures and the ban on international travel from Australia.

James Cracknell from Windsong Travel, which has offices in Bellingen, Sawtell, Coffs and Inverell, said his business ground to a halt six months ago and is now going backwards.

"Currently I've got 19 staff on JobKeeper. We've basically got no income. It's costing me approximately $10,000 a month [to stay open]," he said.

Like other travel agencies, Windsong's employees are spending the bulk of their time chasing companies for refunds or credits on behalf of clients, while also having to pay back commissions on sales they earned prior to the pandemic.

"We refund a holiday and we also have to refund our commission, which was our income from last year. So as well as not getting any income coming through the doors, we are giving previous income back," James said.

The other time-consuming and important work they've been doing is helping stranded travellers return home, as the Courier-Sun reported in April.

In that story, Judy Peterson chronicled the problems she and husband Rick faced trying to get back to Australia as borders closed and flights were cancelled.

The experience taught her that "a reliable travel agent is a godsend".

"We would still be in Quito without the assistance of Windsong Travel," she said.

James Cracknell has been one of the industry voices bending Cowper MP Pat Conaghan's ear about the dire situation travel agencies find themselves in.

Mr Conaghan has responded by meeting with Australian Federation of Travel Agents CEO Darren Rudd and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack to discuss an industry-specific support package to take to Federal Cabinet.

According to AFTA, there is still $4 billion owed to Australians in refunds from internationally based airlines, hotels and tour operators.

"Travel agents have successfully secured $6 billion back for their customers already. It's a process that is complex, frustrating in the current circumstances and time consuming," Mr Rudd said.

"Travel agents are doing this for free while continuing to bear the associated operating costs. Without tailored support, this already financially untenable situation becomes unbearable.

"If travel agents are forced to close their doors, not only will more jobs go but who will look after those consumers still waiting to get their money back?"

Some consumers have received travel credits instead of refunds, but these are also problematic for travel agencies who are just hanging on by a wing and a prayer.

"Say in February next year, things are looking good to travel," said Windsong's James Cracknell. "A person rebooks a trip to Germany but it's not a new sale for us because they're using a credit.

"Within our company alone, we've got about $7 million of travel credits that people have got to use up before we even start making a cent."

We're not expecting any sort of profit until 2023.

James Cracknell, Windsong Travel

James has nothing but praise for Pat Conaghan's lobbying efforts on the travel industry's behalf.

"Pat's been unbelievable, he's really stuck his neck out. He's the most prominent politician doing whatever they can to try and help local businesses.

"The industry employs about 44,000 people. If we don't get some sort of federal government assistance soon, we're going to have to all shut our doors. With JobKeeper reducing even more, there's no way we can retain staff."

Prior to the pandemic, international travel was 95 per cent of Windsong's revenue, but that product has been snatched away with no timeframe for its resumption.

Windsong is a family-owned business built up over decades.

James sees himself as a positive person but admits this is one of the worst times of his life.

"The mental toll of watching a business you've grown for 30 years absolutely stop, so you've got negative turnover, is terrible," he said.

"The easiest thing for me would be to shut all our doors, but our clientele need someone to do the work for them and process all those refunds."

With the domestic market also depressed and consumer confidence low, options for pivoting to a new income stream are meagre.

But Windsong is trying to diversify. They're now selling jewellery on their website and from the Sawtell office, and have also set up a booking site for domestic tourism.

"If people want to book accommodation, instead of going to Wotif or Expedia, which are all internationally owned, they can go onto our site where the rates are just as competitive and all profits stay local," James said. "We've also got an app, Windsong Travel, that people can download."