Lifeline end looms for travel agents

RESTRICTED: Mount Gambier's BP Travel and Cruise managing director Jenna Paproth hopes the community can support its travel sector as it faces a considerably tough time with limited business revenue due to international border closures. Picture: MOLLY TAYLOR

By Molly Taylor

THE Limestone Coast travel agency sector is on its knees due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and the planned phasing out of JobKeeper payments next month looms large for affected businesses.

Two Mount Gambier-based travel businesses have recorded a 90pc downturn in trade since March last year, with the Federal Government incentives providing a lifeline for the embattled industry.

Helloworld Travel managing director Grant Horrigan said 95pc of the business’ income was generated by overseas travel.

“We are on our knees, we have lost 90pc of our business and are pretty much hanging in by a thread. We are just waiting for the borders to reopen,” Mr Horrigan said.

“When they (governments) close the borders at such short notice, they (travellers) don’t get the confidence to trust and book,” he said.

“It is just a battle until we can see some light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines and international border reopenings.”

Mr Horrigan said he was still processing more refunds than generating sales.

“We just have no other avenue for us to tap into,” he said.

“Sending people overseas is what we do, which is obviously what we can’t do at the moment.

“Slowly but surely, we’re bleeding and it’s a matter of time.”

In business for over 30 years and an owner for 25, Mr Horrigan said he wasn’t going to let go easily, with secondary employment keeping him afloat.

“We still have file upon file of refunds we are still fighting for,” he said.

“It is a 40 hour week for basically no income at all, fighting for client’s refunds and trying to achieve the best result for them.

“I have been in the industry for 33 years and have built this business up from scratch as a profitable business, but then COVID-19 hit and then there’s nothing.”

BP Travel and Cruise managing director Jenna Paproth urged the community to support travel agencies no matter how big or small a planned trip was.

“We really try and get out point across to clients its easier if you come to us and the price is generally the same,” Ms Paproth said.

“Sometimes we can get better deals, sometimes it can be more expensive but you are also supporting a local business.

“Sometimes when people go online to book, they may book something which is non-refundable without realising too, we prevent that.”

Ms Paproth said when COVID-19 first hit, many in the sector did not initially realise the full and long-lasting impact it would have.

“When the international borders closed, that was when it really hit home,” she said.

“We had to cancel hundreds of itineraries and bookings which we made in the middle of 2019 and had spent so much time on.

“In a way, we have been working for no income and then refunding the income which we had already made six months ago.”

With continuous and unpredictable border closures, Ms Paproth said agents were battling a loss of confidence when travellers enquired about holiday bookings.

“We would have to cancel people’s trips more than once, then we would rebook and people would be excited to go. They would be about to leave and then a border closure would happen,” she said.

“When borders do reopen, I think there is going to be two types of people, some people will be all for it and others will be hesitant.

“If the borders do open, it’s going to be crazy and if I don’t have staff here who are trained and know what they’re doing, it is going to be another nightmare.”

Member for Barker Tony Pasin said the national JobKeeper Payment scheme, which ends March 28, was always intended to be a temporary program designed to support confidence and get businesses back up and running as soon as possible.

“It was designed to deliver support quickly and at scale and it has achieved its objective of keeping business in business and Australians in jobs,” Mr Pasin said.

“The government is providing $128m for a one-off targeted grant program to support travel agents in recognition that many travel agents continue to process refunds for consumers who have cancelled travel at the same time as they manage ongoing uncertainty about international travel due to the impacts of COVID-19,” he said.

Mr Pasin said the next phase of the recovery was to create incentives for businesses to hire.