Airlines cut down
A major theme emerged during January, with many airlines choosing the slower time of the year to notify the trade that they were reducing their commission. Perhaps some thought that the sleepy time of the year was the best time to slip agents this bitter pill, but during the month no fewer than three airlines signalled the reduction of commission on flight sales. Cathay Pacific (TD 14 Jan) moved to just 1% BSP base commission, touting the move as a “fresh approach to trade partner engagement”, while Hawaiian Airlines followed suit (TD 20 Jan), as did Singapore Airlines (TD 31 Jan). SQ revealed that the decision had not been made lightly, with the airline citing a range of factors including the highly challenging operating environment. Thai Airways was the one airline who bucked the trend in January, announcing an increase in commission from 0% to 3% (TD 12 Jan), but the carrier backflipped in March, cutting remuneration once again to 0% (TD 31 Mar).
Australia-US ties enhanced
A few Australian travel businesses saw some impressive growth in January, with major investments and expansions into the US market. Journey Beyond, which includes the Ghan, Indian Pacific, Cruise Whitsundays, Melbourne Skydeck and Outback Spirit was sold by its parent company to the US-based Hornblower Group (TD 13 Jan), with the sale giving the Aussie company the chance to “leverage Hornblower’s unmatched technology and marketing expertise to further develop and deliver incredible tourism experiences in iconic locations in Australia and around the world”. Meanwhile QuintEvents in the US made a “significant investment” in Sportsnet in Melbourne (TD 24 Jan) and Intrepid planned to build on its operational capability in the US with the acquisition of Wildland Trekking (TD 27 Jan), responding to a huge spike in interest in unique travel options in America.
Luring lost travel agents
The loss of talent from the travel industry due to the pandemic is not a new story, but January saw the launch of two different products designed to make reentering the workforce as an independent agent easier. Flight Centre Travel Group debuted Home, a single platform system which offered advisors supplier data, ticketing, support, marketing and an upgraded product booking platform (TD 12 Jan), while Aeronology started The Travel Advisors, a new retail strategy and brand allowing agents to create itineraries from multiple product and supplier sources with the company’s in-house technology platform which offers a simple “point and click” interface (TD 31 Jan).
A sinking ship
Finally, it was hard to look away from the demise of Genting Hong Kong, the parent company of Crystal, Dream and Star Cruises, as it played out in January. The beginning of the end started with Genting’s German shipyards declaring bankruptcy (CW 12 Jan), with negotiations with the German government falling through. Genting then announced the suspension in trading of its shares, saying provisional liquidators would likely be appointed (CW 19 Jan). In response, Crystal Cruises announced a pause in sailings until the end of May (CW 20 Jan). The company’s woes were in full display when Crystal Symphony had to be diverted to the Bahamas from its planned return to Miami, after an arrest warrant for the ship was granted over unpaid fuel bills (CW 24 Jan). Genting Hong Kong’s CEO resigned after liquidators were formally appointed (CW 25 Jan), and Dream Cruises was put into administration (CW 31 Jan). Of course the story didn’t neatly wrap up with the end of the month, with the saga continuing in the rest of the year. Crystal’s US office was shut down and the fleet sold by the brand’s new management company (CW 10 Feb) and later in the month reports emerged of a number of interested parties in the assets (CW 16 Feb) before in June, A&K announced the successful acquisition of Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity (CW 23 Jun) and Royal Caribbean Group later bought Crystal Endeavour with plans to relaunch the vessel under the Silversea banner (CW 19 Jul).
Borders open but struggles not over
The long-awaited day of Australia’s border reopening (TD 21 Feb) came, with fifty-six flights landing in Australia on 21 February and the day signalling an important step in the nation’s COVID recovery. Unfortunately however, it didn’t spell the immediate end of the industry’s troubles, with a lack of ongoing financial support still hitting agencies hard. Discussions continued between AFTA and the government for a further release of funds that were leftover from previous rounds of grants (TD 22 Feb), and pre-Budget submissions by the organisation suggesting that eligibility for funding could be widened to companies who didn’t receive previous grants or JobKeeper (TD 28 Feb). Over in WA, agents were given some relief with $3 million of funding for industries significantly impacted by the state’s ongoing border closure (TD 11 Feb).
Ban not over for cruise
Although Australia’s international borders reopened, the ban on cruising continued, with an extension until 17 April announced towards the beginning of the month, citing the wave of Omicron cases as the reason for the decision (CW 11 Feb breaking news). Despite the ban extension, there was far more positivity in the air, with most sure it would be the last (CW 28 Feb). In the week prior to the ban extension, Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said he expected the resumption of cruising in Australia would happen “over the coming weeks and months” (CW 07 Feb breaking news), and on the very day the ban was announced, the Federal Government, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria agreed to work with the cruise industry on new protocols to enable the return of ships (CW 11 Feb).
Downward trajectory continues
The losses for ASX-listed companies (and likely many other travel companies) continued in February, with mandatory reporting of the first half of the financial year revealing Qantas, Air New Zealand and Helloworld’s profits had all taken a dive. Helloworld declared a net loss before tax of $19.6 million, however suggested the prospect of recovery was not far off (TD 21 Feb). Qantas too thought recovery was in sight, despite its $1.28 billion loss before tax (TD 24 Feb). Air New Zealand was less bullish with their outlook, flagging plans for an equity capital raising after an interim statutory loss of NZ$376 million for the six-month period ending 31 December 2021 (TD 24 Feb) and an expected full FY22 loss.
Corporate bucks the trend
While major ASX-listed travel companies were declaring a first half financial year loss, those in the corporate space seemed to be recovering better. Corporate Travel Management reporting strong growth and estimating it would be a bigger business overall post-pandemic (TD 16 Feb), with a positive underlying EBITDA of $900k for H122. Flight Centre was yet to be back in the black, however said corporate sales were a major part of its rebound with TTV up 150% of the previous corresponding period (TD 24 Feb). Another signal of the strength of corporate travel was the acquisition of The Travel Authority by ATPI (TD 21 Feb breaking news), with the global TMC network adding The Travel Authority to its other two Australian businesses, Voyager Travel and Plan B Travel.
Cruise ban predictions come true
The predictions that the extension to the cruise ban would be the last came true this month, with ongoing anticipation leading up to the announcement and Tourism Minister Dan Tehan fanning expectations (CW 02 Mar, CW 14 Mar breaking news). The official announcement came on 15 March and confirmed the ban would be lifted on 17 April (CW 15 Mar breaking news). Cruise lines were elated, with Ponant confirming it would be the first international cruise line to resume operations (CW 21 Mar) with its Kimberley sailings, while Coral Expeditions’ cruises in the same region began at the end of March (CW 25 Mar). AFTA however cautioned that the news would not be the magic fix for the travel industry, urging the government to continue its support (TD 16 Mar).
Industry offered another lifeline
That call for ongoing government support was motivated not only by the reality faced by many travel businesses with the slow recovery of travel, but also by the news that there was a tidy $74 million leftover from the previous tranches of the COVID-19 Consumer Travel Support Program (CTSP) (TD 02 Mar). That money was made available in a third round of the CTSP, offering a total of $75.5 million to eligible businesses (TD 19 Mar breaking news). Applicants had to meet all eligibility requirements, including having received a grant in Round 2 of the scheme, where the eligibility criteria changed (TD 25 Mar breaking news), leaving out some of those who received Round 1 moneys, but not Round 2, with applications opening at the end of the month (TD 29 Mar).
March was characterised by a number of southern hemisphere destinations announcing steps indicating they were on track in their recovery from the pandemic. The popular Indonesian destination of Bali announced that quarantine would end for fully vaccinated travellers (TD 02 Mar), followed by the decision to reimplement visas on arrival, rather than the previous visitor visa which required a sponsor (TD 08 Mar). Meanwhile New Caledonia dropped all quarantine restrictions for fully vaccinated passengers, opening the destination to tourists (TD 11 Mar), and the biggest news for Aussies was the reopening on New Zealand’s borders for fully vaccinated travellers, bringing the date forward from a previously mooted July to 12 April (TD 16 Mar breaking news).
Big business streamlining operations
Two large travel businesses announced changes to their structures in March, with both The Travel Corporation and Flight Centre shaking things up. On The Travel Corporation side, the separate silos of all the touring brands were eliminated, with a new TTC Tour Brands umbrella responsible for the sales, marketing and operations of Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, Luxury Gold, Costsaver and Contiki (TD 04 Mar). The new division saw the departure of long-time Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold Head of Sales, David Farrar, and Insight MD Karen Deveson as operations were streamlined (TD 22 Mar). On the Flight Centre side, the changes didn’t see any departures, with senior leadership positions simply shuffled to create three CEOs heading up the three key divisions of Supply, Global Leisure and Global Corporate (TD 28 Mar breaking news).