‘I feel like a ruined woman’ – How the pandemic cost Bicton Travel $38.5 million and 25 jobs

Carole Smethurst, founder of award-winning Bicton Travel, has been devastated by the pandemic which has seen her company’s annual turnover plummet from $40 million to $1.5 million.

“I feel like a ruined woman,” she told Cruise Passenger. And she is not alone.

The industry has this week been hit by a double whammy – the extension of the cruise ban until September 17, and the cancellation of cruises by hugely popular Cunard, which was to have stationed the Queen Elizabeth in Australia this year. Probably meaning another round of refunds and lost income.
Industry wide, in the past 15 months, at least $6 billion in cruise linked economic activity has been lost and more than 700 cruises that would have carried more than 1.8 million guests from Australian ports cancelled. This is money that would have been spent on port-related fees and charges, transport and logistics, food and beverage, shore tours, entertainers and travel agents.
A staggering 25 per cent of Australian-based travel agencies specialising in cruise holidays on Carnival Australia brands in 2019 have now closed. Thousands of travel consultants have left the industry. Six thousand consultants registered in one Carnival Australia brand’s training academy have left the industry.

Since founding her travel agency business in Perth 23 years ago with two members of staff, she expanded her business to 29 consultants.  Today, she has just four.

With international borders closed and large, foreign flagged cruise ships banned in Australia, her business has been consumed with getting refunds for cancelled cruises.

Carole Smethurst

“Our business has handled about $500,000 worth of refunds and Future Cruise Credit (FCC) when Cunard and Seabourn ships cancelled their cruises to Australia.

“In addition, we have handled about $300,000 worth of refunds for cancelled Kimberley cruises for Ponant, Silversea, Scenic and APT.

“The pandemic has decimated my business. My agency is a cruise specialist and since the pandemic, we have downsized to four travel consultants and two casuals. This year my annual turnover will dwindle to only $1.5 million, mostly in domestic travel.

“While I try to remain positive, I strongly feel that the government has not done enough to get the cruise industry back to normal.

“It is disappointing and ridiculous that there’s a ban on foreign flagged cruise ships and that its hospitality crew must be Australians.”

Cunard’s decision yesterday to cancel all cruises to Australia is a signal that more international cruise lines will also pull out, she predicted.

Cruise ships have been through hoops to introduce stringent health protocols, enhanced cleaning/sanitising procedures, social distancing, temperature checks, wearing of face masks and mandatory vaccinations, to ensure cruises are safe.

“What is making me very frustrated is that the government has not done enough to get cruising back to normal.

“Mentally, I try to remain positive but this past year, I am feeling more like a child with terminal cancer.”

A Brisbane based travel agent Dan Russel, whose family owned and operated agency specialises in cruising, this week joined a cruise supplier delegation to Federal Parliament in Canberra calling for a pathway for the resumption of domestic cruises in Australia to save jobs.

Mr Russell, general manager and director of industry leading Clean Cruising, said businesses that relied on the cruise sector were “dying by a thousand cuts” with the rolling suspension of cruising in the absence of a plan to restart operations.

He said his company had a national footprint after 13 years of growth specialising in cruise and was in a strong position prior to the pandemic with a 50-strong team of skilled employees.  Fifteen mostly younger consultants had already been lost, “a precious resource” that the company would need to win back “on the other side” of the pandemic.

The company was now battling to save its senior consultants, mostly women aged 40 to 67, who had built strong careers in travel over a period of decades.

“It is impossible to do any business planning with the rolling three month extension to the cruise ban and no clear direction on when cruising will resume,” Mr Russell said.  “Every three months we expect a roadmap and we just get more uncertainty. We need a plan, we need clarity. We desperately need some ships to get up and running this summer. There are many skilled jobs at stake, which will be lost to the industry forever.”

He said his business had done everything possible to survive the pandemic and save jobs but the lack of a resumption plan was disheartening. When the pandemic hit, arrangements were put in place within two weeks to ensure business continuity with consultants set up with technology needed to work from home.

“We hunkered down and had three goals – to keep our team intact, to keep customer relationships intact and to keep our trade partnerships intact,” Mr Russell said.

Clean Cruising staff

“JobKeeper helped immensely to keep hold of our team but now we desperately need clarity to plan our way forward. Cruise holiday specialists right around the country are all in the same boat and their expert advice will be vital in helping Australians return safely to the sea.

“Sydney Harbour and the new state-of-the-art Brisbane International Cruise Terminal are perfectly suited to safely rebuild this key tourism sector, starting with a phased resumption of local cruises for locals only.

“Both NSW and Queensland state governments can also lead the way here and demonstrate they’re capable of getting ships moving safely again, saving thousands of local jobs in the process. This will require close collaboration with the Federal Government to work through and deliver the resumption roadmap. Cruising has been in the too hard basket for long enough and we can’t wait any longer for a clear restart plan.”