It would be a massive understatement to say the travel sector has been hit hard in the last few months.
But while almost all but essential travel came to an abrupt halt – approaching a year ago now – Eimer Hannon has continued to keep her successful corporate business alive in a sector which has already seen the loss of once industry stalwarts, and a trickle down effect to related industries.
The founder of Hannon Travel has worked within the travel sector throughout her career, and despite the unprecedented challenges that 2020 brought, she’s already seen an uplift in both demand, and positivity, heading into what everyone hopes, and believes, will be a much brighter year for us all.
“My first job was in travel and I finished school and did a course, before going to work at UCD’s travel office, where I worked for nine years,” she told Ulster Business. “That is where I met a lot of my current clients.
“I got into the sector as I saw the needs of the corporate traveller – a person needing to travel, but not going away on holidays. A businessperson. They need support and they needed a person who was knowledgable
“Someone who understood how businesses worked and could offer flexibility, someone who they could partner with to take care of that side of the business. I left dealing with students and then went in to a corporate travel management company.
“At that time the internet was just starting. Everything was still a telephone call and a physical ticket. You were hand delivering tickets, on the phone and calling airlines directly. It was a very different relationship.”
Her lightbulb moment came back in 1999 when she saw the opportunity to create a corporate travel agency with emphasis on a seamless personal service for travellers – setting up Hannon Travel.
Eimer is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the travel business with more than 30 years’ experience of working in the global industry.
“After I had my son Ronan, I was due to go back after maternity. But I basically decided to try and do this myself. That’s how I started,” she said.
“I started with the support of clients, which have been really loyal to me. I’ve built the business on reputation. Hard work – it’s really based on that, building a reputation and getting the job done.”
Starting out with just a couple of staff, Eimer has grown the company to a business working across the globe. The company has offices in Belfast and the Republic of Ireland.
“It has grown in stages – growth and then a plateau.” But she says, Covid-19 aside, the industry has faced similarly huge challenges in the recent past. That includes September 11 and the huge impact an ash cloud, caused by eruptions from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, had on air travel.
“Every year, every month, there is some form a crisis,” she says. “Many of these things go unmentioned. Things like flight cancellations, weather, people forgetting passwords.”
Of course, coronavirus has had a full brakes on impact to the sector here. That’s meant Hannon Travel cutting its workforce considerably over the last few months. But Eimer remains confident of a return to business, and thus, a rehiring of staff when demand returns.
“In March we had all the staff in from our offices. We had said, ‘take you laptops home’ – hopefully we’ll all be back in May. But business hit a brick wall and stopped. There was a sense of panic with borders closing – looking at what was going to close next. It was quite scary, not knowing.”
Hannon Travel worked through the crisis, alongside the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Republic to repatriate more than 1,000 Irish citizens, stranded abroad. Eimer said that included flights coming in from as far afield as Australia, South America and the Philippines.
“Demand is growing, gradually,” she says. “It’s all about getting confidence back. It’s also about what it will be like at your destination.
“It’s a trickle a the moment, but we are expecting it to pick up in April. It will really be down to whether governments of different countries lift their restrictions.
“We are going to be at the mercy of that. We are probably going to go back to where we were in the 1980s. The supply has always been there for demand.
“But when we do open our skies, that demand will be exceeding supply, until we get everything back into sync. We will have fewer airlines, and more consolidation. It will be a completely different landscape as to what we had before.”