EXCLUSIVE

HelloWorld Nambucca determined to weather this storm

Lynn Baker, Lauris White and Jen Baker
Lynn Baker, Lauris White and Jen Baker

There's no hiding the fact that this year has been a fraught time for travel agents, but HelloWorld Nambucca's Lauris White refuses to be anything but upbeat.

Since March the chalkboard outside the Bowra St shop which usually tempts passersby with the latest holiday package has instead been making them chortle with witty one-liners.

"We thought, well it's pointless trying to sell anything, so let's make people smile," Lauris said.

And the reactions from the public have been worth it.

People give us a thumbs up through the window, or come in to comment - it's been really good. Plus it helps people realise we are still here.

It's that community connection and the ability to make people happy that Lauris said the team misses the most, since coronavirus clipped our wings.

"We're usually helping people plan the trip of a lifetime. But since February we've been having to tell them they can't go. That's been emotionally difficult because it's not normal for us," she said.

After eight months, Lauris and her team are still working tenaciously to get refunds and credits for their customers - an arduous task with no financial reward.

"But it's not about 'poor me', it's about my poor customers," Lauris said.

According to The Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) CEO Darren Rudd there is still $4 billion owed to Australians from internationally based airlines, hotels and tour operators.

"Travel agents have successfully secured $6 billion back for their customers already. It's a process that is complex, frustrating in the current circumstances, and time consuming," he said.

"Travel agents are doing this for free while continuing to bear the associated operating costs. Without tailored support, this already financially untenable situation becomes unbearable."

Around 70 per cent of the overheads in Lauris' business are staff wages, which are currently being covered by JobKeeper.

And Lauris has had enough nous to save some money for times like these.

"I count myself lucky - I don't have a mortgage like some others do. And I've been squirreling away money for a rainy day. It's just that this is a very long rainy day," she said.

But with no money coming in and bills to pay, other travel agents, including large companies like Flight Centre, have simply closed up shop and stood down thousands of employees.

Lauris says she can't and won't do that.

I have a responsibility to my customers and I would never walk away from them.

Instead Lauris has joined with other travel agents in the Cowper electorate to collectively bend local MP Pat Conaghan's ear about the situation the industry is in.

Mr Conaghan has recently responded by meeting with AFTA CEO Darren Rudd and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack to discuss an industry-specific support package to take to Federal Cabinet.

"It's a slippery slope because if they help us out, then other industries might expect similar treatment," she said.

"But the thing is travel agencies only have one string in their bow - I can't offer takeaway holidays."

And diversification is difficult when there is still so much work to do tracking down refunds and credits. But she said she knows of a colleague who has started to sell beaded African bags. And James Cracknell from Windsong has started selling jewellery on their website and from their Sawtell office, and have also set up a booking site for domestic tourism.

The Queensland border reopening has been the first ray of light peaking over the horizon.

Lauris said she's already had one customer come in to book a flight from Coffs to Brisbane since the announcement was made on Friday.

"So that's really positive. But most people have fallen out of the habit of using us to book their domestic travel," she said.

Roughly 80 per cent of Helloworld Nambucca's commissions come from international flights and packages.

And there is still no word on when other states, like Western Australia, will allow New South Welshmen to tread on their soil.

"My crystal ball is the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald - we get no inside information at all, and I understand why," Lauris said.

But new COVID cases have dramatically dropped Australia-wide, and the light at the end of the tunnel does seem a little brighter now.

For all the uncertainty of the current situation, Lauris is sure of one thing:

"We've survived (the repercussions from) September 11, SARS and two Gulf Wars. I'm not going anywhere. We're just here to help, and we'll continue to be here to help."

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