Travel agents have been sharing their stories on how COVID is decimating their businesses and destroying livelihoods, in the week thousands of people took part in the Travel Day of Action.

The stories have been collated by campaign group TARGET, which warned last week time is running out to save many businesses.

After losing 95% of its business since March 2020, one company owner admitted: “It’s probably the end,” while another said: “If I had known at the start of the pandemic what I know now I would have closed my business after 50 years of being an ABTA travel agent.”

Here, 11 people tell their stories.

#1 I’ve sold my house to pay back my COVID business loan

“Before the start of COVID, I was planning my retirement as I’m in my 70s. Now the only thing I can look forward to is my state pension. I took out an £80,000 Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan. It’s all gone and I now have to pay it back. But with no money coming in, rent to pay, staff wages, bills etc, I’ve had to sell my house to pay it and now I live in rented accommodation.

“At the start of the pandemic, I had over £1m-worth of future business. Today, I have nothing apart from my pride. I can’t see an end.”

#2 I had to make a family member redundant

“My wife and I own our business and other family members work for us. We couldn’t receive furlough as we’ve been cancelling, refunding and changing bookings. We’ve refunded 15 months’ takings and our commission. We had business interruption insurance with £250,000 cover, but the insurer disputes the claim and will not pay. We cannot afford to pay a solicitor in case we lose and the no-win, no-fee solicitors are all full. We’ve had to make a third of our staff redundant including a family member, who worked for us for 20 years.

“We’ve got rid of our car; I’ve taken a part-time, minimum-wage job, working 32 hours a week, in addition to the 60 hours I spend in my business. We’re selling the family home and downsizing to repay £833.33 a month on the £50,000 business loan we took out.”

#3 I’m being pursued for a business debt I can’t pay

“I built my business over 10 years and I’m being pursued by Funding Circle for a business debt I cannot pay. They are threatening a winding up order or bankruptcy – or both.

“I’m now working myself into the ground with a part time (long hours) pub job on minimal wage, whilst I fight for my business. My mortgage and other personal debts are in arrears to the tune of about £60,000, then the FC debt is about £120,000.

“I’ve been refused a recovery loan by my bank, I can’t afford to pay my one remaining key member of staff to help me with the ever-changing pile of admin and service clients, whilst still having to pay tax, National Insurance and overheads.” 

#4 I can’t sleep

“The last 18 months have caused sleepless nights, anxiety, depression and sadness like I have never known. My parents started our travel agency in 1984, and I joined them in 1988, took over in 2010 and my daughter joined in 2015. We built a very successful business. We’ve refunded hundreds of thousands of pounds and I have furloughed my staff.

“We’d been prudent over the years and had built a good buffer of monies, but this has all gone. Gone too are my personal savings.

“In August I took a second job working in the evening and at weekends, earning just under £9 an hour, just to be able to pay bills. My husband was out of work, and not entitled to any benefits – we could not claim Universal Credit as I own my business premises. In September I had to let a longstanding member of staff go, as I could not see how I could continue to pay them with the changes to the furlough. I have a £50,000 bounceback loan that I have just taken a six-month payment holiday on – this has made my debt larger.”

#5 I’m heartbroken

“I have worked in travel for 34 years and could not envisage this situation in my lifetime.

“We have had to refund customers’ money, which in turn means we have had to refund any commission made, but on top of that, we have had to absorb any credit card and debit card charges which means we are in complete deficit. The banks have no obligation to refund the charges.  We have even taken the loan offered from the banks which we will have to start paying back very soon and with no continuous income, isn’t going to be easy and could lead to redundancies to pay for it.

“The unreliability of the traffic light system is now causing extreme stress and there is absolutely no clarity on requirements.  It is heart breaking to see this industry on its knees.”

#6 I’m furloughed – and anxious

“I have been furloughed since April 2020. People think it’s cushy, but it really isn’t.

“I have had to take on a second job to earn the money to pay my bills and this isn’t always guaranteed. The uncertainty of the situation and the very real possibility of being made redundant when the furlough scheme ends is causing many sleepless nights and anxiety issues.”

#7 Our survival has been down to financial sacrifice

“We have proudly served our customers for over 50 years. We have been a cornerstone of our community, supported many local charities and a vital employer of enthusiastic people. Coronavirus has tested our resolve beyond imagination. Whilst the standard Government support was welcomed, survival has largely been down to our own cutbacks and financial sacrifice.  Sadly staff, some of whom have been with us for many years, are now amongst the ranks of the unemployed whilst myself and my co-director have had to cash in assets intended for retirement to avoid the company from ceasing trading altogether.

“The Government has failed to identify the ‘perfect storm’ of scenarios that has affected our industry, possibly more than any other.”

#8 I’ve been forgotten by the Government

“I’m 53 and I’ve paid tax and National Insurance the whole of my working life, but I was not eligible for the SEISS [self employed income support scheme] payments because I started working self-employed in April 2019.

“I can’t describe how stressful the last 15 months of my life have been.”

#9 I’m on medication

“On a personal level, my life is on hold. I feel I no longer ‘live’, just ‘exist’.

“My mental health has suffered to such an extent that I am now on medication, and a further burden on the NHS. The industry is on the verge of a total collapse that will make the Thomas Cook failure seem like a picnic in the park.”

#10 I’ve had to make all staff redundant

“I’m the sole director of a previously successful high-street branch. Unlike a neighbouring business, I was unable to access funds for sole traders and receive the full grants available. Our businesses are identical as sole branches and with a small number of staff.

“Because the Government withdrew the furlough scheme last year, I was forced to make all of my staff redundant. When they reintroduced furlough, it too was late. I have kept up with all my obligations but I am feeling alone as a business owner here and I wonder if the challenges of running a business will be worth it.”

#11 The pressure is never ending

“Life as a travel agent/owner is absolutely soul destroying.

“The constant financial pressure, stress, abuse and disappointment is just never ending. It is a constant one step forward, two steps back scenario, with brief hours or days of optimism, soon destroyed by the reality of further bad news/restrictions.”

TARGET Co-Founder Graeme Brett said: “We have been really saddened to hear the heartbreaking stories we’ve been sent.

“This Government has failed to support our industry whilst agents have worked tirelessly to look after bookings and to make sure that refunds are paid promptly. On July 1 the furlough scheme will reduce support to employers and this will have a major impact on the travel industry.”