posted on 09/05/20
I used to be sick in cars, coaches and cross-Channel ferries, so I hated the transport element of travelling. And before I was 26 I had flown only twice. But, as an art history student, my motivation was to see buildings and works of art; the end justified the means. I also love the otherness of places which are not home.
Out of despair. I had fallen into the travel business by accident and didn’t enjoy it at all. In a three-year period I worked in four companies, all poorly managed. I decided that the only way out was to start my own, to combine the knowledge I had gleaned as a travel professional with my passion for art and architecture. I knew so little about commerce that I didn’t know how little I knew, and the first few years were extremely tough.
The stresses and strains of tour operating are such that no one would stick it out unless there were handsome compensations – for most of us, these are experiential not financial. To start with, my job has enabled me to see a greater range of art and architecture than practically anyone else on this planet. But you asked for highlights. Many have been musical, unique occasions we have organised such as Monteverdi’s Vespers in the Basilica di San Marco or the recreation in Vienna of the Beethoven benefit concert of 1809. Seeing the unspoilt villages and landscapes of Yemen forty years ago, being alone in the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles, witnessing the opening of the wings of the Van Eyck altarpiece in Ghent by a grumpy sacristan as it had been for 550 years (it’s now behind glass) – highlights are uncountable. I have been lucky.
It’s absolutely heart breaking. So many deaths, but also such deep economic damage. For some tour operators, the problems are exacerbated because we are refunding clients but many of our suppliers are not refunding us. If draconian measures to reduce infection continue beyond the end of the year, it will be difficult to know how the sector will survive. For several weeks we couldn’t furlough staff because it is very time-consuming to close down tours. We will get through, but only because so many of our wonderful clients have agreed to transfer their money to a future tour.
Tour operators like us are likely to become endangered. There are around 600 at the moment, many quite small, and many of those built around the passion of an individual for a place, a subject or an activity. But no SME can be expected to cope with the financial carnage of a crisis such as Covid-19 unless society accepts that it is fair for the consumer to accept some of the pain, which won’t happen. So in due course regulations will require tour operators to hold such enormous reserves that most will be knocked out of the game. Consolidation will ensue – perhaps within three years there will be 200 companies, and in ten years a couple of dozen, selling safe but boring commodities. The golden age of special-interest travel is nearly over.
When I started, I had a degree in art history, had travelled through a lot of Europe, understood how to read a map and knew how to book flights and hotels. Now, first and foremost, one needs mastery of IT and digital media. Everything else is unimportant or irrelevant. So I don’t think I would, or could, start again.
I want to return to somewhere that has been significant in my personal history and important in the history of civilization. That’s not some obscure little haven that travel writers would like to surprise readers with, it’s Florence. Too mainstream? Too touristy? Florence remains the city with the greatest concentration of locally-made art of the highest quality anywhere in the western world. And many of the most evocative ancient streets and squares remain unsullied by mass tourism. Even sooner, I will attend a choral service to hear one of the many professional church choirs which are one of the wonders of London – St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London perhaps, or St Peter’s Eaton Square.