Claire Walker remembers, all too vividly, the precise moment when “reality hit” and the looming seismic impact of coronavirus across the globe came into sharp focus.
It was mid-March last year, and Claire — a travel counsellor with 30-plus years’ industry experience — had scores of clients both preparing to jet off on trips and holidays, and already enjoying breaks in far flung destinations.
By that time, as Covid’s claws were reaching out and digging in around the world, Claire was putting contingency plans in place.
“I think the day that reality hit for me was when Disney closed its parks in Florida,” she recalls.
“Because you say to people: ‘We’ll always still fly, they’re not going to ground the aircraft, they’re not going to close Disney’.
“But when they did, that was when I thought it was really serious. It’s one of those places open every day of the year and you just never expect such a massive thing.”
Another self-employed travel consultant, Natalie Alcraft, also cast her mind back. Now based in Oxfordshire, Natalie — like Claire — is a former Penrith Queen Elizabeth Grammar School student who also began her working life at the town’s Thomas Cook branch in Middlegate.
“When the borders started closing one by one, that was really hard to manage,” said Natalie. “It was just like sand running through your fingers. Then they declared it a pandemic, and put the ban on travel. If anything that was better. No-one could go anywhere, so we started moving everything to 2021, or moving it to later in the year.”
It was, Natalie remembers, “heartbreaking” both for clients with whom close working relationships are forged, and from a business perspective. “It was awful, but I think at that point everyone was in it together,” she said.
Both consultants recall having to balance long working days with the additional challenge of home schooling — Claire with her daughter Hettie, now aged 13, and Natalie with her two children, Dillon, aged eight, and Neve, five.
“It was full-time,” said Claire. “Just trying to get refunds from airlines, trying to just unravel bookings. I had a honeymoon booking with 15 different components, from flights to rail tickets to transfers to hotels, and you have to unravel each individual element, which is a massive job.
“People were going away for special occasions. They save long and hard for their holidays, and it’s hard to have that taken away in amongst everything else that’s going on, whether they’ve been made redundant or put on furlough, or still working.
“Many of my clients are, like myself, self-employed and had to stop working so they had the added worry of losing their money as well as their holiday – but that’s what I’m here for – to reassure them and work hard to get their money back.
“Initially I was just too busy to consider it. But gradually as we started to work through it, we had to step back because nothing became that urgent any more; you didn’t have clients who were flying, so you had to take a little bit of time out to try and save your sanity.
“Most of my clients were really understanding and very supportive.”
Natalie described working “all hours”. “Imminent departures were the hardest to manage initially and then it was a case of calling everybody else and asking what they wanted to do with holidays,” she said.
“It was just before Easter so we had all those holidays about to depart and the ski season was coming to an end so it was just calling everyone. It was working tirelessly but also for nothing, not making any money. We’re self-employed completely.
“But the main thing was making sure everybody was spoken to and money was protected and wasn’t just going to go down the pan — and that we were secure in the business as well.”
And so, tentatively, to the future. Staycations are the main focus for 2021, with foreign holiday bookings flourishing for 2022.
But for now, Government announcements are key with country-coded traffic light overseas return rules set to come into effect from Monday week on May 17.
For England, the green light countries are Australia, Brunei, the Falkland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Iceland, Israel, New Zealand, Portugal, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, Singapore, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
Claire, of Little Strickland, said: “I think we all know, at some point, travel will come back, and it will come back with a vengeance. People will want to get away.
“I think there is an anticipation it will take off and people will be happy to travel and happy do the testing because I think people have got their heads around that now, or have the vaccine passport or whatever it is that might enable them to travel again.
“Everything changes by the day. What we have to work on is only facts.”
Her advice to holidaymakers is to book a package because they give protection; book through a reputable travel business and make sure insurance covers Covid.