Roadmap to Recovery The Interview

Karl Thompson, Unique Vacations

As the first Sandals resort reopens in Antigua, with others to

follow next month, the brand’s UK representative is confident the Caribbean will bounce back. Katie McGonagle reports

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coring a new, high-value booking would feel much like winning the lottery to many in the travel

trade right now, so it’s easy to understand why there’s a tinge of pride in Thompson’s voice as he explains that for the past two weeks, revenue from new bookings has hit 60% of that in the same period last year. It’s a sign of the times that this is

a cause for celebration rather than a cause for concern, but Thompson insists the prospects for the winter- sun market are positive. “I think we will retain the

majority of bookings for departures from October onwards,” he says. “The Caribbean is a key

destination for Brits over the winter. Obviously, July, August and September are questionable because we don’t know what the flying schedule is going to look like, but I do believe that we’ll retain the majority of the winter business. “We’ve seen a healthy increase

25 JUNE 2020

[over the past two weeks], and that’s on a fraction of the marketing spend we would normally have, so we’re really pleased and it gives us great hope for when there’s more confidence in being able to fly. “I really do believe that it will

bounce back pretty quickly. Clearly it’s not going to be the same and demand will be impacted, but I see it being relatively healthy. We just have to adapt to new ways that consumers want to purchase.”

Paying refunds When the coronavirus crisis first hit, the priority for tour operator Unique Caribbean Holidays was repatriating clients from the Caribbean, while helping agents process the huge number of refunds and rebookings. “I chose not to furlough the

entire team,” says Thompson. “I kept half of the team on from day one to make sure that operationally and financially, we were set up to protect bookings and protect commission for travel agents on those bookings. “We’ve had a really good retention

level. From the start, we’ve been averaging 65% for bookings retained – that is, moved to another travel date – and over the past four weeks, we’ve been retaining 80% of bookings. “It’s really encouraging, but it’s an

awful lot of work, so I’d like to thank travel agents for their patience in working with us.” Accommodation rates have been

held for customers able to travel within two years of their original booking, provided they were happy to pay any difference in airfare. Thompson also says the company

has now processed all refunds due to direct customers and via agents. “We have refunded every

customer that has wanted a cash refund. We took that stance from day one – we didn’t issue credit notes, it was the full money due back. “That’s millions of pounds. It’s

not to the level of British Airways and Jet2, but in our own terms, it was an awful lot of money that we’ve had to refund. “But I think that will help our

relationships with retail consortia moving forward, because we have been working in the right manner. “Of course, we’ve encouraged

customers to switch to another travel date. But ultimately, if people can’t travel, we have been giving them that refund.”

Getting Sandals Grand Antigua open was a big first step. We have more planned opening dates for other resorts. The only challenge from the UK is the flying schedule

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