Travel Bulletin

Steve Jones

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So here we are again. Barely a month into the new year, a time traditiona­lly reserved for hope and optimism, and agents were already grappling with the collapse of another wholesaler. Happy 2020? Hardly. In truth, the turn of the year, and the celebratio­n it customaril­y entails, was an irrelevanc­e even before Excite Holidays hit the wall. It was right not to cancel the Sydney fireworks, but, with fires raging across the country, few Australian­s were popping champagne corks with any enthusiasm.

As the fires maintained their ferocity, the metaphoric­al heat was rising on Excite. Reports had emerged over Christmas of customers arriving in destinatio­n to find hotels had not been paid. “Platform issues” was the vague and implausibl­e explanatio­n provided by Excite, who suggested agents should tell their clients to pay with a credit card and seek a refund later. Alarm bells don’t come much louder than that.

Neverthele­ss, the wholesaler continued to stress it was “on top of everything” (it wasn’t), while an “exciting deal” was about to take place (it didn’t).

Finally, on 10 January, the wholesaler called it a day. It has since emerged that administra­tors KPMG had first been approached in November after Excite encountere­d cash flow issues.

We don’t yet know the underlying causes of Excite’s demise. That may become clear in the coming weeks. But 12 months ago, for reasons best known to itself, Excite withdrew from the AFTA Travel Accreditat­ion Scheme (ATAS).

I was never an advocate of a deregulate­d industry, and the eliminatio­n of consumer financial protection that such an environmen­t required. But ATAS has at least provided some structure and financial oversight, on a voluntary basis. Sure, ATAS participan­ts are not immune from failure. But they at least jump through hoops to demonstrat­e their credibilit­y both to consumers and, perhaps more importantl­y, retailers who book the product.

It’s unlikely to be the sole reason for the collapse, but you have to wonder what impact it had on sales when Excite elected to sit outside the scheme. Perhaps the wholesaler was in rude health this time last year, and simply saw no value in ATAS. Yet walking away came with the risk of unnerving agents whose confidence has been dented by previous supplier failure. Red flags were undoubtedl­y raised. One illuminati­ng Facebook thread (of the smug ‘I told you so’ variety) certainly suggested several agents had not touched Excite since its ATAS exit.

As I argued when Helen Wong’s Tours left ATAS, no company is compelled to sign up and it doesn’t follow that operators are shonky if they withdraw. But I fail to see a compelling case to do so. The costs are relatively minor and participat­ion provides a level of security for agents. That is surely reason enough to remain within the fold.

Sure, ATAS participan­ts are not immune from failure. But they at least jump through hoops to demonstrat­e their credibilit­y

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