Flight Centre CEO talks all things travel

The Australian tourism industry has been hit hard by COVID-19, with travellers and agencies alike struggling to cope with the standstill. But as borders open and restrictions ease, many Australians are eager to get out there and explore this great southern land.

For advice on booking, top destination picks and the inside scoop on the industry, we spoke to expert on all things travel, Flight Centre CEO, James Kavanagh.

Tell us about where we’re at with Flight Centre and the refunds that occurred during the pandemic
We’re making great progress. It wasn’t a great start to be honest, the travel industry was never built to go in reverse.

And as you can imagine, the entire industry came to a standstill in March. Refunds back then were quite slow and we basically have to wait for our suppliers to actually give us back the money for our customer to be able to give them back that money. So, it’s taken a while for us to improve our processes.

We’ll put our hand up and apologise for our customers there, but the entire travel industry was either not giving a refund, putting something into credit or taking a good number of months, 12 to 16 weeks right up to six months to provide any form of refunds. So, now we’re actually making good progress.

Typically, when we get the money back from the supply chain, which is a hotel or the airline, we get it back to our customers within a five-day turn around. And so far, we’re on track to have refunded over a billion dollars. So quite a significant amount of money. That’s going back to our customers and we’re starting to see customers getting ready to book again, which is good news.

We’re about two-thirds of the way there. We think that once the rest of the money comes in from the supply chain, we expect to have that money back to our customers as quick as possible.

Once borders reopen, we’ll be able to get around Australia more smoothly. What do you see as the benefits of using a travel agent?
So, first and foremost, the benefits of using an agent is that we are there to back them on behalf of our customers. And going back to the point of refund, there’s been many suppliers that actually didn’t actually offer refund, and we’ve been able to use our relationship and partnerships to be able to get back some money for our customers.

So, that’s been really important … we’ve been around for forty years and the buying power of the group. And I was asked to get some of the best deals in market with some really sharp pricing for clients. But some of the great things that we’re offering right now is some deals that have a lot of inclusions in them. They’re packages that people haven’t considered before, because there’s a lot of new destinations on offer that people might not have otherwise considered.

And what’s really popular right now, is people looking at places like WA, Broome, and the Kimberley.

Wellington is number three in the top three lists, actually, but you’d be surprised, tropical North Queensland is very popular again and Tasmania is right up there, too.

Are people doing what we lovingly call ‘flop and drop’, where you get to the resort and lie on the banana lounge, or is there a bit more soft adventure creeping into the picture?
We’re seeing a mix of both actually. And, I think you’ll certainly see people looking for a break. They certainly just want to flop and drop, but there’s also some creative itineraries where people are looking to go on walking tours or things they might not have considered before.

And there are some great deals going on, walking tours and a variety of different trips and local excursions where people are experiencing different things in different regions.

I think people are just actually seeing things anew that a lot of inbound tourists love about this country. And perhaps Australians had put it on the backburner and thought, well, I’ll always get there some day, but they’re getting there now!

Indigenous travel experiences seem to be getting more attention in some parts of the country. Are you seeing interest in that at Flight Centre?
We haven’t seen a huge amount of interest, but certainly we have heard it being talked about. But what we’ve seen that’s been included as part of experiences, where if you’re going out … in Queensland, it might be part of the actual experience itself, where you get to hear from the local Indigenous people about the lands as part of a walking tour. So, definitely, it’s being incorporated into some trips where you can experience local culture, that and more.

People want to start booking interstate travel, but they’re not too clear around the rules, which are changing daily. Are there flexible bookings available with Flight Centre?
Actually, that’s a great question because this is something that our customers are most interested in now. And our agents are telling us that the most common inquiry from people right now is the flexible deals we have on offer at the moment.

They want that peace of mind. But, particularly, they want to know that, if they book and something happens to stop them from travelling, will they get their money back?

Most of our products offer a great deal of flexibility, and our agents help customers make sense of the guidelines on whether you can go one way into a location and still come back, and things like quarantine restrictions and requirements. That’s where our consultants are really adding value.

YourLifeChoices members who contact Flight Centre will want to talk about flexible deals, and may want to talk up-front about terms and conditions and refund policies? Do you provide absolute clarity for the person booking their travel?
Absolutely. And that’s something that our agents will take great care to highlight.

And just to talk about the benefits, because it just keeps that peace of mind. Am I able to make a change if I need to? And, in the case of a border closing again, what does that mean for me? So, that’s what we’re consulting a lot of our customers with now. And, it’s proven quite helpful.

If you could go anywhere in Australia today, is Tasmania your number one pick?
Tasmania and Broome are mine, I have to say, but I can’t decide between the two of them. I’ve always wanted to get up to the Kimberley and I’ve travelled extensively around Australia. I absolutely love it. I think people are actually still quite fortunate to be able to have a phenomenal holiday in this great country.

We know that Flight Centre has a fabulous record and reputation. If people want to know more, it’s flightcentre.com.au?
That’s it, or we still have many outlets around Australia and thousands of consultants who are still working and looking forward to speaking to any customer that wants to get in touch.

Do you plan to use a travel agent when booking your next holiday? What domestic destinations have you got your eyes on?

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