Coronavirus Covid 19 2019 N Co VBlog

Six months like no other

Reflections on our response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

The Coronavirus pandemic has clearly hit society, schools and the travel industry in an unprecedented way. The school travel industry has been affected in a particularly unique way.

With all our Easter, summer and October half term trips either cancelled or postponed, we wanted to take an opportunity to look at some of the issues faced by us as a tour operator, and also schools, over the last few months. We wanted to reflect on our approach to handling the pandemic and offer some insight into the options we gave to schools and the choices made by us and our clients.

If you have any questions on the information below, please don’t hesitate to contact Adrian or Chris on info@thestc.co.uk

In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, we proactively approached all our schools due to travel in the coming months with a range of options on how they could proceed. This was very early days in the pandemic, prior even to the UK lock-down. Although European borders were shutting down, there was no knowing how long the pandemic and travel restrictions might go on for. Indeed, July seemed a very long time away indeed, and it couldn’t possibly go on that long, could it?

If you’ve worked with us before, then you’ll know that as a company, we wear our heart on our sleeve and believe in honest communications. The Covid pandemic was no different and we wanted to be completely transparent with our clients as to the potential financial implications of various scenarios and, where possible, to create certainty in a time of deep uncertainty.

Based on a number of reasonably anticipated possibilities of how we thought things might progress, and in line with Package Travel Regulations (PTRs), we offered schools the following options:

  • To continue planning for the trip in the hope that FCO advice would be lifted in time for departure. If the trip could not run due to FCO advice, STC Expeditions would be obliged to cancel and provide a full refund. On face value, this seemed like a good option for schools. However, there were a number of issues:
    • 1) Parents and/or schools needed to continue with their payments, which some parents (and schools) were not willing to do;
    • 2) Students would need to keep planning for the trip logistically – they would need to invest in vaccinations & visas (destination dependent), kit and travel to the airport etc.
    • 3) There could be situations where we could run the trip (in that FCO advice was OK), but either the school and/or parents/students either could no longer travel or did not want to travel. 
  • Postpone the trip until a future date. Again, this option presented difficulties with questions over whether students (or possibly teachers) would still be at the school.
  • Cancel the trip. If schools wished to cancel, we offered to waive our usual Booking Conditions and reduce our cancellation charges. The amount we were able to offer by way of a refund depended on airline policies, the amount of deposits we had paid to our ground teams and a few other factors, but each trip was treated on a case by case basis.

As the pandemic has unfolded, we have continue to make decisions in accordance with the PTRs, as is our legal obligation. However, we have also tried to be as flexible as possible in order to find the best outcome from our clients. Often, this has been to our own financial detriment. We have advised schools of the legal framework surrounding the PTRs, along with their rights, our obligations as an operator, but also potential scenarios where there may be question marks or ‘grey areas’ over how the PTRs affects school travel in relation to Department for Education advice – something that no one in the school travel industry has had to deal with before.

The past six months have been incredibly challenging. The rate of change and the challenges being thrown at us has been frightening. And they are not over yet. Summer is our main expedition season and we have seen two years’ worth of hard work by the team at STC Expeditions, not to mention the travel dreams of hundreds of our teachers and students, just completely evaporate. Our partners and communities across the globe, who rely on tourism just as much as we do, are being deeply affected too.

We have been in business for more than 14 years, with Adrian being in travel for another five before then. We’ve seen 9/11, ash clouds, coups in Turkey, airlines going bust, the 2008 recession, earthquakes in Nepal and many other huge events. But nothing has come close to this. There have been no winners when it comes to travel. 

Not everyone was been happy with the options we put forward though. If we got it wrong, then I apologise. But we have also been buoyed by numerous positive messages of support from many of our wonderful clients:

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“Thank you so much... This is easily the best and most measured response we have received from a tour company and credit to you for your personalised support.’’ 

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"Many thanks for this and again, huge thanks for your great correspondence – it really is hugely appreciated and definitely something that I am not experiencing from other travel companies for other trips that I am working on.’’  

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“Just to say we are thinking of you all. You are an amazing team and doing a fab job during this difficult time”.

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So, it has definitely been a tough few months. And whilst many of our clients have been thankful for our personalised approach, some have questioned the decisions we made. Schools, and indeed some parents, have questions why we didn’t just refund all money in every case.

It is our view that travel companies have become an ‘easy target’ in the current climate - in an ideal world, yes, full refunds all round, no questions asked, no matter ‘who’ decides to cancel for whatever reason. This would be great. For the client, at least. But if the travel industry did that, there would be no travel industry left. Behind the big multi-billion Pound brands are hundreds, if not thousands, of owner-managed, small family firms – like ours - that are really trying to do the right thing by their clients, whilst also protecting their businesses and livelihoods that have taken years to build and employ hundreds of thousands of people across the UK.

Which brings us on to the next section of this blog post. Throughout this whole event, it’s become very clear that there are a few frequently misunderstood areas of the Package Travel Regs and how they affected the right to refunds and the position of schools. So we thought a few FAQs may be helpful.

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Why did we act in March when trips weren’t departing until the summer?

  • Some schools and parents were calling for decisions to be made at that time and we wanted to give options as early as possible.
  • The situation was developing rapidly and changing on an almost daily basis.
  • There was a huge degree of uncertainty.
  • The Department for Education advising against overseas school trips is not, under the Package Travel Regulations, a reason for an operator to have to cancel and refund, so we wanted to proactively offer solutions to schools.

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Did you force schools to cancel?

  • No. We laid out the options open to schools. Client cancellation was one option out of three that was put forward.
  • It was our view at the time that this option offered the school community the most certainty and peace of mind; returning the majority of the trip costs at a time when individual families could have been facing significant financial uncertainty.
  • Some parents were telling us that they did not want their children to travel, irrespective of whether FCO advice was OK.
  • Many schools and individual parents were either behind on payments or intentionally refusing to pay. This encouraged us to act early and offer reduced cancellation fees, even when we weren’t legally obliged to.

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Did you, as an operator, cancel any trips?

  • Yes. Where clients chose to continue to pay in the hope the trip may be able to run, but STC Expeditions later had to cancel the trip, schools received a full refund within 14 days as required by Package Travel Regulations.

Why did we not wait until closer to departure, to see how things progressed?

  • We would have been well within our rights to. As a tour operator, we don’t have to make a final decision as to whether a trip is viable until very close to departure. This could feasibly be a day or two before the outbound flight if there is good reason to believe that the FCO advice may change in time. During this period of deep uncertainty, we anticipated parents and students would appreciate some peace of mind and clarity. We therefore looked at possible solutions other than leaving it until the very last minute.
  • Parents and students would have incurred extra expenses e.g. Visas, vaccinations, kit and transport, none of which would be refundable or claimable on insurance should the trip not have gone ahead.
  • If the FCO advice had changed in time for a trip’s departure (as it has done for various of our destination such as Vietnam, The Azores and Madeira), then we foresaw a situation when we could be able to run the trip but the school or individuals would not have been able to travel and would have had to cancel (and lose the majority of their money) e.g if:
  1. DfE guidance still advised against overseas trips.
  2. The school/town might be in lockdown and students might not have been able to get to the airport.
  3. The teachers accompanying the trip could have become ill or might have needed to shield.
  4. School emergency home contacts may have been ill, meaning they couldn’t provide the support required to a group overseas, should they need it.
  5. GCSE and A-Level exam period could have been postponed until July (this was uncertain at the time of making these decisions back in March).

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Why couldn’t we postpone?

  • Some schools did choose to postpone. But there may be reasons that certain schools chose not to e.g:  
    • Students may have left the school next year.
    • Teachers may have left the school.
    • Personal circumstances may have changed.
    • The revised dates may not suit all participants, meaning the group size becomes unviable resulting in automatic cancellation of the trip or a surcharge.

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Why were parents losing money when the school made the decision?

  • Both parents and schools agree to our booking conditions. Within these conditions, there is a section saying that if a participant is withdrawn from a trip by his/her school this will be treated as a voluntary withdrawal by the participant.
  • Unfortunately, it wasn’t viable to offer multiple options to multiple parents directly because there could have been some parents happy to delay, while some might have wanted to cancel. If a certain number of students did want to cancel, then this could mean the trip became unviable due to minimum numbers not being reached.

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Our trip was cancelled. Why did we not get a full refund?

Since the outbreak of the virus and travel bans began, there has been a general misconception – both in the public domain and amongst the school sector - that if a trip is cancelled, individuals are entitled to a full refund. This is not necessarily the case. It depends on the circumstances around the cancellation and, in particularly, who makes the decision to cancel. 

Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing belief that all travel companies should refund in full no matter what. Where an operator is forced to cancel a trip, then as mentioned above, under the PTRs they are obliged to offer a full refund. Where the client (in our case schools) opts to cancel, then the operator is not obliged to refund in full. So why might a travel company not refund money even though the trip isn’t going ahead?

  • If the client chooses to cancel, then this is known as a ‘disinclination to travel’. Booking conditions usually cover this eventuality and there are cancellation fees applicable.
  • FCO advising against travel in March does not require an operator to cancel a trip due to depart in the summer. Therefore, if a client wants to cancel in March then that is a ‘disinclination to travel’ (as the operator is entitled to wait until the summer in the hope they can run the trip).
  • Advice from ABTA very early on in the pandemic said that the DfE advice against overseas trips did not form an obligation on operators to cancel the trip and therefore refund in full.
  • The operator is likely to have incurred associated expenses on the trip (e.g. flights, ground services, as well as parts of the package that may already have been received (e.g. student training sessions, t-shirts, medical clearance processes and others) and so it is unreasonable to expect a full refund when it is the client opting to withdraw.
  • We are a business and have already been working on this trip for several months/years and that incurs costs, salaries and overheads. Where a school opted to cancel early, we simply couldn’t afford to refund in full, across the board, as it would have been the end of our business. Instead, we offered to waive our usual terms and conditions of cancellation and offering a much-reduced cancellation fee.

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Why did some schools get a better refund percentage than others?

We looked at each trip on a case by case basis. Where schools chose to cancel early, the cancellation fee offered was bespoke to that individual school and based on our unrecoverable expenses such as flight deposits and pre-paid ground services at the time the school choose to withdraw.

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Why did ATOL not cover us?

There has been a huge amount of misunderstanding around ATOL, the Package Travel Regulations and travel companies’ obligations. The ATOL Scheme is designed to protect clients when a travel company goes into administration, as in the recent case of Thomas Cook, for example.  ATOL protects customer money and, if necessary, repatriates people who are overseas if an operator goes bust. It’s not designed for any other purpose.