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Travel and tourism: ‘We need to encourage people back to normality’

Lack of staff, public hesitancy and cash flow just some issues faced by sector

News that the Holiday Inn at Dublin Airport is to shut its doors to guests and become a centre for asylum seekers is a further sign of the continuing difficulties faced by Ireland's tourism and hospitality industry. Severe labour shortages, a nervous public faced with continuing waves of new coronavirus variants and inflationary pressures on consumer wallets as well as the war in Ukraine are among the factors combining to make for an unsettled outlook for this key industry sector. We look at what the future might hold for it and what the industry is doing to drive its recovery.

As one of the last countries to open up, Ireland is far behind in reigniting the industry, says Michael Collins, owner of Travel Media. "The UK went through a recruitment drive last year, but we're only now in the midst of trying to recruit people in Ireland so we're not ready for tourists yet. The Government got a lot right, but there are some things they didn't get right. The one thing they can and should do now is send out the message [that] it is safe to go out and to travel. People can't get their head around the fact we have opened up and we need to encourage people back to normality," he says.

In terms of bringing the travel industry back to life, it’s not a light switch that can be turned back on and a significant challenge is lack of staff, as many exited the industry during the pandemic, Collins says.

“Dublin Airport let 1,000 people go. It was losing €1 million per day at the height of the pandemic so they did have to let those people go but it’s going to mean a huge recruitment drive now, the same with airlines and travel agents, but we’ve lost good people from the travel industry, and they have now settled in other industries and they’re not coming back,” he says.

The industry will not return to what it was if the balance between outbound and inbound travellers is not equal, he says. “If you have an airline flying Dublin to Stockholm, it only works if the point of sale is balanced, it doesn’t work if all traffic is coming from Stockholm, you need the outbound too. The equilibrium is not there, and the access and routes aren’t there,” he says.

There are new trends appearing, one being that people are happier to stay closer to home and if they are booking long haul, it’s for the end of the year. Therefor the major problem facing travel agents is cash flow.

"If someone books a holiday to South Africa for Christmas costing €10,000, they'll only pay a couple of hundred deposit now, and the balance is paid weeks before meaning cash flow is an issue for travel agents. This year is about trying to get back to normal, but we are far from normal in terms of cash flow, planning, budgets, staff recruitment, access and routes. They are also recruiting people who maybe have never worked in hospitality, so they need a lot of training too," he says.

For these reasons certain sectors need supports to go beyond April, the point in time the Government plans to cut off supports to the travel industry, he says.

There is some good news. Despite the ever-rising costs of living, there are plenty who managed to save a lot during the pandemic and they want to spend and get back to travel.

“It won’t go back to how it was, but those who survive will do well and there are a lot of consolidation opportunities out there at the moment too,” Collins adds.

In the luxury hotel sector, Michelle Maguire, chief executive of Ireland's Blue Book, says she is hopeful for a busy spring and summer with both domestic and international guests returning to hotels.

"Throughout the pandemic working with the tourism agencies of Tourism Ireland, Tourism Northern Ireland and Fáilte Ireland we maintained strong relationships with travel professionals around the world. We are definitely ready to welcome their clients back to our hotels and hopefully all those Zoom calls to California and Toronto reminding them of the charms of Ireland will result in strong overseas visitors this summer," she says.

“We have to attract employees back to our hotels and tourism businesses. The ‘great resignation’ has affected our industry more than others and we have a lot of work ahead to rebuild. What worked in the past may not work in the future and we need to recognise that fact, address the issues and go forward from there,” she says.

“Ireland is competing with luxury destinations throughout the world, we need the continued support of our Government tourism agencies to compete internationally and win this business for Ireland. The halo effect for local businesses from having a five-star hotel in the local economy is very positive,” she adds.

Angela Walsh, chief executive of Frosch Ireland, a corporate travel agency, says there was and is a big focus on service, and clients continued to go to Frosch due to their ability to "get someone out of a country at the drop of a hat".

“We were getting calls from people we worked with 15 years ago. Clients who can turn up quickly and don’t have to wait for sign off from above are the people who are getting the deals. We have a great reputation and kept our staff and because of advances in technology we have a great opportunity to invest in people and bring younger people in.

“We are also working on an academy, bringing in people who love travel and putting them through a training programme. It’s not about trying to poach staff from other agencies, you have got to do it differently. You could be 60 and retired or 21 and coming out of college entering the academy. Yes, we have a shortage of staff in the industry but never have we had better opportunities to address it,” she says.