Flight Centre GM talks pivoting, compassion and $1 billion in refunds

Flight Centre GM talks pivoting, compassion and $1 billion in refunds

Things are starting to look up for domestic travel, but without clarity from government, the industry will continue to suffer, according to Flight Centre’s general manager.

Speaking to Travel Weekly, Kelly Spencer said the travel giant’s stance is that it wants consistency around the country by having an Australian-wide policy on border restrictions, rather than state by state.

As soon as there’s confusion, customers shy away, ” she said.

Spencer said that before lockdown 2.0 in Victoria, the travel giant saw a shift in momentum for both enquiries and bookings.

“We saw a lot of consumer confidence return. But once it was announced that Victoria was back into lockdown we did see a sharp drop off,” she said.

“I think that rocked a lot of customers confidence in that this wasn’t just going to go away and we don’t know what’s around the corner.”

However, the last two weeks have been more promising, with South Australia reopening its borders to NSW overnight and Queensland and South Australia easing restrictions for ACT travellers a few days ago. 

“We saw a good spike in enquiries from customers getting out and wanting to understand what they can book and actually locking some bookings in,” she said.  

“The more clarity and confidence we get around borders the more customers react positively.”

Savvy agents can use the confusion and lack of clarity to their advantage, Spencer said, as even the simplest domestic trips can prove frustratingly complex in the current climate.

“Any time there’s complexity and uncertainty people are driven to trust and value and I think we’re really well-positioned in that respect,” Spencer said. 

“We can ease some of that confusion not only around the travel products but also how to travel and where you can go safely.

In fact, according to an agent survey conducted by the company in August, a Flight Centre agent’s main selling point is that direct line to someone who can deal with changes and cancellations, acting as an advocate for clients.

However, that’s not how the agency was conveyed in the media at the start of the pandemic, particularly on current affairs programs.

“It was a rocky start. Our systems are not designed to cancel or refund holidays en masse, they’re designed to book, confirm and pay for holidays,” Spencer said. 

“It’s something I don’t think anyone in the industry could be prepared for or was prepared for.

“We’re nearing, in Flight Centre Australia alone, close to $1 billion in refunds.”

The company copped its fair share of negative customer sentiment, but spencer said it has come a long way.

“Our people were subjected to a lot of customer angst but we tell our agents that all we can do is be compassionate,” she said. 

“Everyone is going through a really uncertain time. We just have to keep in contact with them and remind them that we are financially viable, that we will be here and we will get their money back ASAP.”

Back to domestic demand, Spencer said the agent survey from August also indicated 60 per cent of clients were looking to book domestic holidays, with an equal split between inter- and intrastate travel.

“Fifty per cent of those travellers intend to travel within the next three months,” she said.

“So we know there’s going to be a lot of pent up demand. People are itching to get back out there.”

Flight Centre Travel Group supremo Graham “Skroo” Turner will be speaking at the travel industry’s most thought-provoking conference, Travel DAZE 2020. To find out more or to register, click here.

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