Speaker Alison Kearney with Sergeant Mike Abercrombie answering questions following her presentation.
One of our own Alison Kearney who owns and operates the House of Travel in Howick shared her experience of the dreadful impact that Covid 19 has had on the industry and her business at our Tuesday dinner meeting.

Knowing about the outbreak in January and being led to believe that it was going to similar to the previous SAARS and MERS situation Alison left New Zealand to travel to Norway and the Artic to see the “bucket list” Northern Lights in late February. While away and being temporarily out of Wi-Fi contact, she suddenly had a barrage of emails on the 10th March notifying her of the situation as well as a deluge of questions from clients. On the 11th March the WHO declared the outbreak as a pandemic. 

The impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on her own business and the travel industry as a whole has been disastrous and Alison bravely related her own downsizing and alternative income business strategies that she and the NZ operations of the House of Travel had to put into place to survive. In addition, she told us about the international impact including such incredible statistics such as; 17000 planes being “idled” in deserts around the world at a cost of US$5000 per day, IATA members losses of a staggering US$84 billion up to July, all the world cruise ships anchored up and mothballed, Emirates refunding 750000 tickets per month and one airline having 19 policy changes in one month. She also shared some of the amazing House of Travel survival stories that occurred during this period. 

Despite going through this horrendous ordeal Alison is proud of how her and the company have weathered the storm and is also immensely grateful for the ongoing customer support that she has received. After 33 years in the industry Alison is optimistic that with everyone getting vaccinated and borders opening safely that it will be “onwards and upwards from here” after an incredibly stressful year. 
The full text of Alison’s presentation is available under Read More.    
2020 started as a normal year in the travel industry, Kiwis coming back off their summer holidays and January and February being two of our busiest months with people planning their overseas trips for the year.  
On 8 January China researchers announced a new virus, a coronavirus in Wuhan but advise that they are making progress in containing within the city.   For our industry we too believed that this would be similar to SAARS and MERS both of which had been in Asia in the past and it would be short lived and travel would continue but possibly excluding Asia.

On 25 February I departed NZ on a bucket list trip to Norway and the Arctic to search for the Northern lights.  When I left things were still normal albeit travel to China was certainly off the radar for the foreseeable future.  Due to being in the Arctic on a cruise ship we had no Wi-Fi for 7 days in the first week of March and so when coming back into range on 10 March my phone wouldn’t stop beeping with incoming emails.  How things had changed over a week and now the virus was spreading with cases in Italy and Spain.  When we docked in Bergen, we were advised that once we left the ship the port would close and we were the last cruise ship to arrive.  Viking cruises were the first cruise line to stop cruising and we realised then that this virus was a real concern.  On 11 March World Health Organisation declares the outbreak a pandemic.

Arriving back at work on Friday 13 March it was chaos with a really stressed team who had been dealing with worried customers and there was so much uncertainty about the future and what it would involve.  Then on 20 March NZ closed the border to most foreigners and New Zealanders could return without quarantine but were encouraged to self-isolate at home.  Over the month of March House of Travel helped get over 4000 people home which was a real achievement in extremely difficult circumstances.

23 March was D-day for NZ when the government announced level 3 lockdown and mandatory quarantine for all incoming passengers.  Airlines suddenly started cancelling flights and our travel world in NZ changed instantly.  When lockdown happened and the international borders were closed “we effectively lost 100 per cent of our business overnight, bang, the whole lot”. The negative impact on airlines and their fleets, worldwide was catastrophic - Thousands of airliners had to be placed in storage around the world. Estimates are that nearly 17,000 airliners were idled at the peak downturn due to the COVID-19.  Dry weather in the desert works in the favour of airlines when it comes to storing their expensive jets.  The low humidity along with low aerosol and air particulates in these parts help store planes for a long time. The Mojave Desert in California is where Qantas sent their fleet and Singapore airlines are all parked up at Alice Springs. Airlines pay about US$5000 (NZ$7000) a month to store a plane at a desert facility,  

Some 7.5 million flights were cancelled between January and July 2020 and the airline industry has   suffered up to $84bn of revenue losses in this time, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA)
Cruise ships too have been laid up other than a dozen or so sailing the world with purpose of repatriating crew members from every corner of the globe. The rest are sitting idle in cruise ship purgatory, unable to sail commercially for the foreseeable future.  Modern cruise ships are not designed or built to just be turned off and left at a pier so they are lying in warm layup as massive amounts of machinery, electronics, and even steel needs maintenance, checking, and preventative work.    In warm layup, most systems are kept functioning with a skeleton crew and means that ships can quickly be put back into operation – within weeks as soon as they get a full crew onboard and sail to the appropriate destination. The cost for this layup for Carnival cruise line which incorporates Carnival, Princess, Holland America, P&O, Seabourn and Cunard ran into a nett loss of 10.2 billion in 2020.  However even without and cruising this year they have liquidity in place to sustain themselves throughout 2021.  Overall, such a costly situation for all cruise lines who want to remain in market.

Looking back now I reflect on how hard it was to overnight put an entire industry in reverse which no one was set up to do well.  Airlines had always refunded but their systems were not capable of refunding every ticket issued in the last year prior to this event.  Emirates alone was refunding approximately 750,000 tickets each month. Unfortunately due to the massive volume of refunds and differing policies it was taking up to 8 weeks for airlines to process refund requests which was not ideal for clients but on the whole in NZ we were lucky with the amount of airlines who did refund  Due to the uncertainly of the future though airlines were only putting out policies for 60 days in advance so it was an evolving process throughout the year dependant on when clients were due to travel – so a difficult process to manage.  But airlines were hoping it would be a six-month event and everyone might be back to normal in late 2020
It was a very stressful time for us as we were dealing with so many different suppliers around the globe as clients trips particularly on long-haul European holidays can have many components.  Flights, cruises, tours, transfers, accommodation, sightseeing, trains and other arrangements had to be cancelled or postponed.  Our much-loved job of putting together itineraries for clients suddenly changed to unwind them all and process refunds or credits 
Each supplier had different policies and systems and they too were having to downscale their teams to ensure survival whilst unravelling all our clients’ arrangements.  As an example of one of the main challenges we faced – we had 19 policy changes from one airline in a month!  HOT had to deal with cancellation of around 120,000 bookings across all our stores.

While it was an incredibly difficult process, our teams worked so hard to get the best results for customers.  Having agents do the work meant a lot less stress for customers, as opposed to if they were trying to contact suppliers directly themselves on 0800 call centres some of which in India or Europe and on different time zones.  Our clients really appreciated being able to speak to a us about their specific booking as opposed to a generic ‘help’ email or feedback form and so made them a lot more comfortable about the process.

We have heard horror stories of accommodation and tours booked online with agencies who are based out of New Zealand not refunding and people losing thousands of dollars.  Even the big online providers like Expedia and Booking.com were sometimes sticking by a rate being non refundable instead of going into bat for clients and getting refunds.

The NZ travel industry shrunk massively due to offices closing down or working from home.  In 2018 there were 277 agencies nationwide which has now reduced by over 50% and the number of consultants reduced by about 80%
As well as being a massive financial challenge for the business, it has been devastating to see the loss of so many valued team members together with the resulting impact on families, ripple through our whole company.   With reductions in earnings, redundancies, and reduced hours, plus the uncertainty about what lies ahead it was a very stressful year.  For me personally I had to let 4 of my team of 6 go and it was the hardest thing I have ever done in all my years in my business.  I hope that with time we can welcome back some of the great people we’ve lost from our industry.  But I am not prepared to let go or let a virus beat me after 26 years in business in Howick so I am hanging in there….
 Without any international travel we had to pivot to domestic and we have had incredible support from customers a lot of whom are in this room – so thank you so much!!  Our domestic bookings are up by 125%.  As a NZ owned company it was very important that we support our local tourism operators and hence had some amazing deals on offer.  The two most popular destinations were Stewart Island and Queensland/Fiordland and on one of our deals to the Chatham Islands we sold out the hotel for a whole month
Some clients were desperate to get away – particularly corporate clients and one of the most extreme cases I heard from another House of Travel office was   
TWO CUSTOMERS who needed to be in Queensland just south of Cairns for a Government roading project. With the restrictions on passengers heading to Australia — and the government in Australia limiting seating to 35 pax per flight — it was proving a challenge to get them across the Ditch. We looked at various options, waitlisted every day and called Air New Zealand (who could not assist). We had to find a destination that would allow transit or a turnaround without a mandatory quarantine. Clients said whatever it takes we have to get to get to Queensland. I saw the UK was still allowing passengers to transit and this may surprise you, but the option we settled on was Qatar outbound via Doha to London. The irony is this flight transited Brisbane - their exact intended destination! I must confess we did contemplate them doing a runner off the aircraft in Brisbane and heading straight to Customs!
So these poor customers flew more than 29 hours to London arriving lunchtime, spending 25 hours in the UK, then flying 23 hours the next day on Etihad Airlines to Sydney via Abu Dhabi.
The customers left on 6 September at 6.15pm and arrived in Sydney on 9 September at 9.15pm. They had travelled 77 hours and 25 mins to get Sydney, and they still had to head to a Quarantine facility for 14 days before a flight to Cairns for the roading project. When an Auckland to Sydney flight is 3hrs 40mins, these two literally went around the globe to get into Australia. Crazy but true!
With next to no income coming into the businesses PIVOT became a buzz word and some of our offices had some interesting ways to earn money.  We had offices working in local avocado orchards, fruit picking in Hawkes Bay, shops displaying art works, staff making and selling masks which brought customers into store to purchase, pop up Xmas shops, and in the Southern region a team decided to support the owner of the business by making cheese rolls.  A total of 19,280 cheese rolls were made by staff, families and friends and sold to support the office income.  The local paper ran an article and they even managed interview with Mike Hosking
What we all have learnt through this pandemic is that you have to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t.
Our ORBIT TEAM which is the corporate arm of HOT pivoted to being a Healthline call centre assisting with contract tracing, contact during lockdowns and COVID events such as Papatoetoe high school and Kmart and providing Kiwis help and advice.
At least 80 of their team across NZ are still working part time with Healthline over a year later and this year myself and my other consultant have also taken on call centre work with Healthline to bring income into the businesses
Pre-Covid Auckland airport had more than 100 retail and food beverage businesses open almost around the clock.  That number has fallen to 11 tenancies and services prior to quarantine free travel re-starting.  The reality for these stores is it will take time to restart, reemploy and also have the certainty that traveller volumes will sustain their businesses AKL chief executive Adrian Littlewood says the recovery in passenger numbers is going to be lumpy for a while until passengers gain confidence in the response of the aviation system and also how the Government uses its traffic light system.  We have seen the domestic market gradually recover and so expect the international market will do the same especially once everyone is vaccinated

Pre covid we were connected to the world with 25 airlines flying here delivering passengers and cargo.   Now we have 6 carrying passengers and another 5 servicing just cargo.  The main airlines servicing NZ are Air NZ, Emirates, Singapore airlines, Qatar.  Most airlines have shown interest in coming back however that will be dictated to by how slow we are to reopen to the world.  If other markets open before we do and are more economic to fly to then we may see a reasonable number of these airlines not return or have delayed returns to the market.  So any commentaries around tourism in NZ not being back to pre-covid days until 2024 may very well be the case.  
The bubble opening with both Australia and Cook Islands has been good news, however people are taking a very cautious approach and with the recent lockdown in Melbourne it has shown what can and may happen particularly in Australia.  We have certainly had more interest in Rarotonga as people are keen to get away for a warm break over the winter.
The support we have had from our customers has reiterated the increased relevance of a travel agent in these times, the complexity of travel in a covid world and the value of our people and their accessibility.  We are a NZ owned travel company and have retained more offices and staff than any other chain and this is testament to our belief in ourselves and the depth of relationships and loyalty we have built over the last 33 years.   I am very proud be part of House of Travel and it is huge testament to everyone that the company was successful in attracting last year two family investors into the company to inject capital at what is undoubtedly the toughest time in our history.     
So, its onward and upward from here.  We are hoping that with everyone getting vaccinated and borders opening safely with sound strategies we are now on the path to recovery albeit it may be slow and steady