BUNAC and the pandemic - what have we learnt a year on?

A year on from the start of COVID-19, what we've learnt.

BUNAC and the pandemic - what have we learnt a year on?

Written by Rob Harris, Senior Coordinator - BUNAC

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome on board your flight today. I am your Captain" - For a lot of us, we haven't heard these words in over a year and we're counting down the days until we've got that excitement back in our lives, that only a holiday abroad can fill. You might have been lucky enough to catch a summer break in 2020 but with the constant change of travel bans being put into place, deposits were lost, flights were cancelled, and the suitcases stayed in the bottom cupboard underneath the stairs.

As a work abroad company - what did the pandemic do to us? It threw a hurricane in our direction. We were constantly watching the news to see what was happening and it was an awful time to be in the travel industry as hundreds, if not thousands, of travel enthusiasts lost their jobs. At the time, BUNAC was owned by STA Travel Ltd and were part of the plans to get the wider brand back on its feet. However, with the pandemic hitting our industry as hard as it did, STA sadly had to file for insolvency. We were still able to continue trading and through our strong leadership, we were acquired by a new investor that saw the potential of the youth travel market and understood that normality would resume at some point.

It has certainly been a roller-coaster of emotions since the acquisition, but the BUNAC team have learnt more about themselves and how to run a business than we could have imagined. Look at our top lessons that have helped shape our future business:

1) Just be honest and you'll be pleasantly surprised by how your customers react

We've been inundated with questions about what the near future of travel will look like and instead of blagging an answer and pretending everything will 100% be okay, the best response has been "at the moment it's really difficult to tell, but we will keep you informed to the best of our ability and support you in any way we can".

Customers call companies and expect to speak to an expert in the field and why shouldn't they? We are providing them with a service and naturally they would expect you to know everything about the product. With a little bit of compassion, honesty and understanding, you can build a rapport with your customer that you don't always get elsewhere. That's the beauty of the travel industry, most of the people that work in it love to travel! Want to chat to a member of our team about your time in Peru? Sure, we'll listen! Want to hear about our experience working in Canada? Get ready for a long call!

Don't over promise your product - let your service do all the talking for you.

2) You've got to take the risk to get the reward

There's no denying that this next lesson was only possible due to the pandemic and because of our new business structure. Provide a money back guarantee even when you know there is a high chance you'll have to follow through with it. In a time of such uncertainty, we rolled out a COVID Booking Promise - 100 % money back if you can't travel due to COVID-19. We wanted to give young people the confidence to book and get excited about a trip and a full refund means a full refund. What do we gain from this? A reputation as a company that cares and truly serves the customer. When life really has gone back to normal, are you going to want to book with a company that left you out of pocket, or the company that was open with you from the get-go and was able to return your money without any questions being asked?

3) It's okay to take a break - we're only human

Whilst you want to provide the best service for customers and ensure that everything is perfect, it's okay to admit that things don't go to plan and need time to be perfected. Now more than ever we need to look after ourselves and the people around us. A friendly message on Teams or a quick call on Zoom can go a long way. Tell your staff to take a break, explain that working 15-hour days isn't sustainable. Treat your staff well and they will deliver the best experience for your customers.

4) You can't please everyone - don't take it personally

When the pandemic hit, we were inundated with customers upset their plans were getting cancelled and the uncertainty of when they might be able to travel again (quite understandable after months & years of planning). This impacted a lot of people and as the staff member who had to respond to the emails, it sometimes felt like you had been singled out and blamed for the upset. I learnt the key was to put yourselves in the customers shoes. The pandemic caused upset all over and plans were shattered right in front of customers eyes. Show the empathy, be supportive and don't take it personally!

A year on and the pandemic is still affecting the travel industry globally. We are excited to see countries open their Working Holiday visa programmes again, including Canada. We have been blown away but the resilience of young people to get away and have a life-changing work abroad experience. On the day the Canada programme opened we received over 10,000 calls – so it's safe to say people are ready to travel when the world opens up again.

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