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FIRST INTERVIEW: New AFTA CEO talks travel's present and future

In his first interview as the new CEO of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA), DARREN RUDD shares his thoughts with Travetalk on the future of the travel agency sector and what his organisation is doing to support members in these unprecedented times.


Will JobKeeper 2.0 be enough to sustain the industry?

We are extremely thankful to government for their support ... they have done a tremendous job. 

AFTA has been lobbying government since as early as January and JobKeeper 2.0 was born out of the collective efforts of industry associations and stakeholder groups working together.

Treasury's review of JobKeeper Payment phase 1 found that the JobKeeper Payment met its initial objectives: to support business and job survival, preserve employment relationships, and provide needed income support.

However, the review also identified that there was continued need for macroeconomic support and that an appropriately targeted extension of JobKeeper would continue to provide assistance to the most affected businesses and support recovery.

This report also found that at the sectoral level some sectors, such as [travel and] tourism and arts and recreation, may remain distressed throughout the remainder of this year and beyond, largely due to the health restrictions that will remain in place, including border controls.

JobKeeper will go some way in sustaining businesses however it will be up to the individual travel agency owner to make the necessary commercial arrangements to ensure their long-term survival.

AFTA is doing all that it can to support members at this difficult time.


Do you know how many travel agencies in the industry have been forced to close since the start of COVID-19?

AFTA has always had honest and frank conversations with members about the reality and challenges of COVID-19.

That is why we brought in insolvency and legal experts, created toolkits to assist with temporary and permanent business closure, and developed communications tools to help businesses contemplate the scenarios and understand the steps that they many need to take in managing the financial health of their business.



In fact, very early on the team had the discussion about how, and the right to time, to discuss with members the reality that unfortunately some businesses will close. Fortunately very few businesses have closed, largely thanks to the government's various economic support packages, but we do expect there to be closures. It is inevitable.

However, there are many ATAS accredited agents who have their overheads under control, don't have debt, have operated a proper client account and have a loyal customer base ready to travel as soon as restrictions are lifted. These businesses will ride the wave of COVID-19 and be ready to help Australians travel again when possible.


What is the overall mood of AFTA members? Is despondency drowning out hope?

If there is one thing that has stood out to me upon taking up the helm at AFTA, it is that this is an industry filled with passionate people. Despite the majority of travel businesses losing 90% or more of their income, they remain committed, hopeful and resilient.

In fact, even when they have little to no income, our member agents have been going above and beyond to support consumers. They have repatriated them when borders were shutting, they were working for free to cancel bookings and spending countless hours on the phone to suppliers to negotiate for a refund on behalf of their client.

It is an extremely challenging time for all – in and out of the travel industry – and AFTA recognises that members do and will continue to need support and so as part of our commitment to supporting members through COVID-19, we have been running a series of webinars on mental-wellbeing and this will continue.



Are you confident about the sector's future? What sort of timeline have you placed on a recovery?

Absolutely. COVID-19 and international travel restrictions will not last forever. People are itching to travel and when borders open we anticipate the sector will flourish.

AFTA strongly believes that ongoing collaboration between Federal, State and Territory Governments and industry bodies is key to successfully restarting tourism and the wider economy. The government has a responsibility to protect lives and so the economy needs to re-start in a sensible way.

AFTA was represented on the Tourism Recovery Taskforce through Director Graham "Skroo" Turner, which outlined a roadmap for recovery. The plan identifies a number of realistic steps that government can take to unlock real and immediate benefits for travel agents and travel businesses as well as across tourism, hospitality and events. This includes the need to establish travel bubbles.


What can travel agents/the travel industry take from 2020?

The passion and resilience of our industry – and there is strong sentiment from consumers wanting to travel just as soon as they can.

Australia is uniquely and perfectly poised to deliver travel bubbles. The Asia-Pacific zone is seen as one of two large travel bubbles that could occur, with Europe being the other. Our Asia-Pacific bubble would, thanks to China and Japan, account for 27% of global GDP.



How will COVID-19 change the way travel agencies operate?

There are very few industries that can claim to be unaffected by COVD-19. The outbreak of the COVID-19 disease has posed great challenges to the worldwide economy and people's daily lives and will have far-reaching consequences beyond the spread of the disease.

The reality is that such an external force will inevitably drive innovation and change in the travel industry, just as it will across many sectors. Our industry has been in survival mode, so I say keep watching this space to see what creativity and innovation results from this crisis hereon.


How difficult will it be for agents to sell domestic/local holidays?

Travel bubbles between states and countries that are already low risk is a common sense solution to re-opening our borders in a controlled and responsible way. There is a compelling economic imperative to do so.

While the easing of border restrictions in most states is good news, the reality is that until international borders open, the travel and tourism sector as a whole will continue to struggle and ongoing tailored support is key.

ATAS accredited travel agents are experts in travel and AFTA is working hard to push this message through strategic communication processes so that travel agents are top of mind when consumers look to travel next.


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Written by: DARREN RUDD as told to MARK HARADA
Published: 29 July 2020

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