After travel’s unpredictability and COVID’s side-effects, South Africa’s surviving tour operators and package-holiday specialists are in the process of scaling up their businesses and report that they are busier than ever.
High call volumes, demand outstripping supply, having to deal with fulfilment of travel that often was paid for more than a year ago - these are just some of the challenges operators face. But, these businesses are cautiously optimistic that the tide has turned.
MRU sales up
Packaged Mauritius holidays are proving as popular as ever. According to Beachcomber Tours MD, Terry Munro, March and April sales for Mauritius packages were more than 60% up on pre-Covid results. He hoped the trend would continue for the rest of the year.
Munro said two-thirds of Beachcomber’s Covid-affected bookings have been cleared, but that there were new challenges. “Clients have mostly rebooked with a few cancellations, however, we are still clearing the rest, which takes so much of our consultants’ time, as all the details and requests have to be carried forward and new costings have to be done. We also have the challenge of fewer flights to Mauritius… so we have had to buy more seats in advance and increase our financial risk so as to maintain sales at previous levels.”
Munro said the most operational significant operational-type changes at Beachcomber Tours, brought on by Covid, have been clear communication of health protocols; more relaxed cancellation conditions in quotes and confirmations; and active encouragement for pax to take additional insurance to cover all risks.
“We are finding that demand is huge for Mauritius and past clients are desperate to get to a Beachcomber hotel and enjoy all we have to offer them,” Munro said.
Like retailers, tour operators have had to embrace a remote workforce, and meet demand with a scaled-back workforce.
Head of Travel at kulula Holidays, Deolinda da Silva, said Covid had created an agile, flexible environment that the travel industry had never seen before. “Both staff and clients have certainly got a different outlook towards travel. The pandemic has required quick adaptation to change, not only in travel arrangements (pulling rabbits out of hats), but also in the working environment. Staff are adequately and reliably able to work remotely if necessary, and that has helped enormously.”
Da Silva said, even though volumes may be similar to 2019, many businesses were now not adequately resourced for servicing the level of demand and faced huge pressure because teams had been forced to downsize to cut costs.
Marketing & Product Development Manager at Air Holidays, David Wood, said the team was smaller but still keeping up with the higher volume of requests.
“The pandemic taught us to work like a small Japanese car - lean yet efficient,” Wood said. “The major change has been down-staffing and working from home. We have never been really big but we are only four staff for now, but we get the job done. And we like to think we do so, well.
“We are also swayed towards those suppliers that stuck by us and were willing to play the game and assist us in trying to get business in the torrid times. We haven’t cut ties with anyone, but we do tend to favour those who have actively been by our side in the 2020/21 period. We are more focussed on specific product - even more so than we have always been,” said Wood.
Supply and demand
Overall, operators are happy to see demand growing. Da Silva reported that domestic travel has held its own, and that international travel has bounced back with confidence.
She said: “Travellers are desperate to fly, not only for family reunions, but for wanderlust… Our traditional routes remain strong as clients ease their way back into travel.”
Wood pointed out that tour operators as well as retailers come under pressure when travellers shop around and then default to the Internet in order to book.
And another phenomenon has entered the scene – consumers have tuned in to the distress among travel industry players, and their expectations can be unrealistic.
Wood said: “As a B2B operator, we see this… travellers are so used to the world being ‘on sale’ that some people have lost touch with what things actually cost, and they still expect massively discounted rates.”
Pressure on Africa bookings
Wood added another difficulty Air Holidays is experiencing as an Africa operator.
“We are facing extremely high occupancies in the region for the period of July - October, due to the floodgates of international safaris business returning to those areas. We are struggling to find rooms at a lot of the destinations during certain periods as they are being held by group tours.
“As an operator that only deals with the South African retail travel trade, we take our trends from our agents and we have seen massive increases in interest for travel, and people who are still very keen to remain regional… I see the upward drive continuing through the year, as long as the availability is there. We are not ones to make long plans and strategies - particularly with the past two years in our minds - but we have wonderful product and willing travellers, and that is the best we can ask for.”