As the UK tourism industry marks a year since the first pandemic lockdowns began, Paul Melinis, managing director of river cruise and escorted tour operator APT, shares his thoughts on the milestone
It feels strange to be reflecting on the passing of a full year since Covid-19 redefined the world. When the virus first reared its head and closed our borders, I could never have imagined that things would change so dramatically and for so long. The word “unprecedented” has been frequently used to describe the last 12 months, and unprecedented they truly have been. The impact on the travel sector still feels surreal and, for all of us across the industry, it has been deeply challenging to navigate our businesses through such uncertain times and testing trading conditions. How truly heart-breaking that some companies were not able to make it through unscathed.
Although we must wait another month for clarity on the timeline for travel’s restart, we can take some heart in the green shoots of recovery around us. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the trade and the support of our loyal customers, we are poised to return to doing what we all love as soon as we get the green light.
The appetite for travel is definitely there. At APT, our main audience is aged 55+ so we benefit from counting the UK’s first-inoculated amongst our core customer base. Analysing their purchases provides a good indicator of what broader consumer behaviour looks like post-vaccination. Our sales figures demonstrate the confidence that the vaccine roll out is giving to travellers, and our future bookings for the second half of 2021 and 2022 are stronger than even I was expecting.
Unsurprisingly, Europe is leading the field in terms of our most popular destinations, but Asia is also selling very well – our river cruises on the Mekong are proving extremely desirable for 2022. “Bucket list trips” in Canada, Australia and New Zealand are also attracting a lot of attention, and I would attribute this to customers’ refusal to waste any more time than is necessary when it comes to booking their most dreamt about adventures.
In cruising, all indicators point towards river recovering first. River cruising offers a different proposition to ocean, and the ability to be nimbler. At APT and Travelmarvel, our ships welcome up to 160 guests on board – the combination of fewer passengers and the proximity to land and plenty of shore-based activities lends itself well to a more socially-distanced experience, and the ability to meet Covid protocols and navigate different borders will be easier with a smaller vessel.
I also anticipate that guided travel will be a post-Covid holiday hit, and we are seeing enquiries and bookings for our longer haul escorted tours rising rapidly. This travel style offers a high level of reassurance to customers. For example, having a professional APT or Travelmarvel tour director to oversee all aspects of guest wellbeing, knowing that the strictest standards of hygiene are being upheld throughout the trip, and that we have done due diligence with all of our partner hotels, restaurants and attractions, gives greater peace of mind when compared to travelling independently.
Other drivers that are stimulating bookings right now include the protection of flexible Covid booking cover – organisations such as ours are including this for free for all guests to mitigate risk of making a purchase now. We also offer Covid travel insurance to our guests at a heavily discounted rate. Similarly, a commitment to delivering the highest standards of health and safety, with strict pre-departure health screenings, industry-leading hygiene practices and enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols on all of our cruises and coaches gives further reassurance. We also have some incredible deals in the marketplace to further entice travellers back on holiday with us as soon as it is safe to do so.
Although things have been tough for everyone over the last year, I’m hopeful about the future. APT has a long legacy. With 90 years in the business, we’re here to stay, and continuing to invest. We still plan to launch our three new Travelmarvel ships, Polaris, Capella and Vega, in Europe this year, and we’ve just announced our 2022 Europe & Russia programme, unveiling a brand-new small ship in Croatia, The MV Lady Eleganza, which will take up to 34 guests on an immersive yachting experience along the Adriatic Coast.
There is a lot to look forward to - not just at APT but also right across the industry - and I cannot wait for us all to get back to doing what we all do best.
Find out more about APT on the official website.