The Era of HolidayTravelWatch

There are moments in our lives, when events or situations drive you in a direction that you never imagined that you would travel.

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HolidayTravelWatch Consumer Activism Consumer Rights

1990 was such a year when, as a mature student, I started my Law degree.

Little did I realise that events in Europe would prove to have such a defining effect on my professional and personal life!

That was the year when Europe, or the European Union, woke up to its responsibilities toward its Citizens and introduced an important piece of Consumer legislation. It moved the balance of power away from Civil Servants and Industry and placed substantial Rights in the hands of ordinary Consumers. Those brave steps subsequently led to greater Consumer protections being introduced, applicable across all 28 Member States.

By 1994/95, a diminutive woman by the name of Brenda Wall, became an unwitting Consumer Champion. 

She had become the leader of a Group Action against a major Tour Operator, using the Package Travel Directive, which had been transposed into new Regulations in the UK. 

Brenda suffered with a typical bad holiday in the Caribbean and had acquired 3 notifiable diseases; she was not on her own!  

Over 100 other holidaymakers joined her to create the first ever UK-based Group Action against the Tour Operator, using the fledgling 1992 Package Travel Regulations.

After mounting what she described as a ‘David & Goliath’ battle, she and her fellow holidaymakers won the day and secured substantial compensation for the poor quality holiday that they had suffered.

What inspired me about Brenda was the sheer grit and determination she displayed against a corporate giant. 

She fought against what she saw as an injustice; they had made the promise - they had failed to deliver - she was going to challenge the notion that holiday claims were just one of those things you had to tolerate. 

This was important because for Brenda, a holiday was like any other Consumer product and it should be delivered in a near pristine condition!

As she came to the end of her legal battle in 1997, I met Brenda and the Organisation she had created at the end of 1995; HolidayTravelWatch.

I watched as she campaigned for the better delivery of holidays, appearing in the press and on TV and meeting with governments to secure a better deal for Consumers.

As she drove her Consumer-focussed agenda forward, opinion became polarised between support of what she had to say, to one of disdain and opposition toward her activity. She was accused of being in the pockets of lawyers and had false allegations made against her, but despite these attacks, she maintained an open door to all; a route that ordinary Consumers could understand - a route for the Travel Industry and politicians to learn from and correct past mistakes.

I have often said that the whole issue of Consumer Rights in Travel, thereby opening up a greater recognition of Rights, was primarily built upon the work of 4 people; Brenda, Stuart Henderson, Clive Garner and myself. 

We could not have achieved our goals without the assistance of a small team, initially comprising of Amelia, Sue & Christy. Our ‘gang of four’ developed a dialogue, an understanding, a clear message that you as Consumers did not have to suffer with the ravages or attitudes of Commercial Companies.

Such was the message about failures in Consumer Rights, TV delivered commentary and case studies through the ‘Holidays from Hell’ programme. 

The early agenda engaged with high politics, with the Minister for Tourism from the Dominican Republic coming to the UK. He had been appalled by the actions of this one woman on their tourist trade, however, when he met Brenda and saw the work of HolidayTravelWatch and the evidence it presented, he returned to his country focussed and determined to rid his island of the deficits being delivered by hotels and travel companies. 

In another political first, Brenda, along with other Campaigners, met with the Spanish Senate. In that meeting, evidence was presented and it demonstrated that not only were hotels delivering a poor quality product but that some were not even registered; the Spanish realised that their ‘tourism’ picture had been skewed by incomplete data.

Those early years were indeed heady; Consumers flocked to the Organisation, group meetings were held and the media were fully engaged. The Consumer was on the march; they were not going to have their precious 2 weeks away ruined by poor or shabby standards. Many of the Consumers became firm friends of the team and indeed a small number worked within the Organisation.

The concept of the Organisation was simple; it was to provide help and assistance to ordinary Consumers with a small number of difficult cases being introduced to partner lawyers. The flip side to the activity was to take all Consumer experiences and argue with Industry and Politicians to introduce better Standards or Legal Protections - this was the beginning of a new form of Consumer Activism.

Activism was to take many forms; addressing International Health & Safety Conferences on the scourge of poor hygiene in the holiday setting, meeting with local environmental health teams to highlight and help them understand why they were experiencing an influx of sick holidaymakers, working with trading standards to either understand or help them understand the key failings of the holiday product or indeed the operations of travel companies.

The reaction of the travel industry at this time was akin to being on a roller coaster; sometimes Brenda would be welcomed and feted by travel companies and their trade bodies, other times she suffered with a whispering campaign against her work.

By 2000, I had moved on, but had retained my connection with Brenda as her Company Secretary. Both of us had to deal with an ill-informed complaint to the Courts about the activities of HolidayTravelWatch, but as ever, the allegations made were built on sand. Such incidents only served to demonstrate that not only was the organisation’s message getting through, but that it revealed that the Consumer was having an affect, but rather than deal with the root cause of the travel product problem, Travel Companies preferred to adopt an ostrich-like approach to some fairly substantial problems.

Through this period, Consumers were actively forming Group Actions, but the Travel Industry were also becoming organised. Holidaymakers would form protests within the hotel complexes and the reaction was to simply call the police or engage security guards to deal with outraged families who had suffered with appalling illnesses. 

By 2003, the greatest shock to the organisation was the news of Brenda’s diagnosis of terminal cancer.

I will write again about that period except to say the story of HolidayTravelWatch very nearly ended. I agreed to join with Brenda and become one her fellow Directors and a shareholder. It was remarkable to see how a change in someone’s personal circumstances could add a new impetus and value; Brenda became a tour-de-force and it infected all those around her. Brenda’s raison d’être was reinforced and she became passionate about the organisation’s survival after her death. Together we confronted some very difficult issues; finance, development, structure and the stirrings of change in the legal market.

Up to her death in 2005, not a day went by when great progress was achieved; funding was stabilised, new systems were introduced and a new web presence was created - you could feel the Consumer status and interest coalesce around the organisation.

Following her death, I became the new Managing Director, and with the ‘living will’ we had created for the business, for indeed it had to become a business, it delivered discipline, direction and good governance. But, at its heart, we never forgot that the Consumer lay at the very core of what we did.

We began to implement a very broad Consumer writing & publication strategy, but, it was our political work that became one of our proudest set of achievements.  By the time Brenda had been diagnosed, she had felt that something had been lost from the organisation and together we realised it was that campaigning spirit that we were famous for!

In the months after her death, we began in earnest to bring a more detailed story to the door of the politicians; we had concluded that the Travel Industry were deaf to our opinions and findings and therefore a new route had to be found.

We began in the one area that concerned Brenda most; the fear that the Package Travel Directive would be repealed because of the cries of the Travel Industry and the ‘arrival’ of he so-called DIY holiday. We were able to demonstrate that the proposal from some political and industry quarter’s was a real attempt to return the Consumer to the ‘wild-west’ of travel. Such was our persistence at Westminster and Brussels, not only were we consulted privately and publicly (presenting to the then 27 Member States), that many of our propositions were accepted and the tune from the Travel Industry changed, whereby they began calling for a level playing field through Regulation!

Such achievements were not limited to Package Travel; Air Passenger Rights, Ships Safety, Kids Club Safety and Crime in resorts have led to not just a National dialogue but an International engagement on key issues. Today, I sit on 2 International Committees (US and EU) to help develop a Standard on Cabin Air Quality; my understanding and presentation on this important issue alone has revealed the deficit for Consumers on key health & safety issues.

One key achievement was on the Regulation of Travel Insurance. I gave evidence to the Treasury Select Committee and provided subsequent reports detailing Consumer detriment on the purchase of this important financial product. Eventually, the government of the day decided to introduce a light-touch regulation, but something was better than the status-quo! 

An interesting insight into giving evidence in parliament is that whilst I was giving that evidence, sitting behind me were some senior members of the travel industry. As I spoke, some quietly groaned, sucked their teeth and were less than discreet in their conversations; when in the corridor of Portcullis House afterwards, one senior member of the travel industry approached me and from a distance told me that they clearly had to talk with me and promptly threw their business card at me. 

This abuse was not limited to direct contact; there were times when it was clear that some elements of the Industry briefed major broadcasters with inaccurate statements, all of which had to be dealt with and crisis managed. But the culture of abuse was not just limited to me, Brenda or the Organisation. In recent years, that abuse has manifested itself in resorts where some travel companies and hoteliers threaten, isolate, seize cameras with evidence or ignore a Consumer’s complaint.

That said, this glum picture of the Travel Industry needs to be balanced with the many people I have met and spoken to from that Industry. They too are inspirational; dedicated, professional, caring; wanting to deliver that high quality product and somewhat disgusted by those in the Industry who did not share their passion. 

One such person I have met, in whom I have a high regard for, is Peter Fankhauser, the current UK CEO of Thomas Cook. He was faced with the backlash from the Corfu Carbon Monoxide case and took that awful event and the corporate response away from his ‘advisors’ and presented what I believe to be a genuine remorse and disgust for what had happened. He did not have to meet with me and another Campaigner, but he did. This is a man who presented a normality; a Father, Humanity, an Industry Professional doing the right thing, like so many others in the Industry.

Through this last 22 years I have also detected a sea-change in Consumer behaviour - there is a world of difference between the Consumers of 1997 and of 2017. 

Today, the average Consumer appears more fearful, more isolated, willing and ready to accept to word of the Travel Company over their own sense and understanding; they appear to accept that everyone is a travel expert and that their complaints can be resolved by a simple click! I must however acknowledge that even today, there are Consumers willing to fight and go that extra mile - they too have delivered change in the way the travel product is delivered and often do so in unique and innovative ways. Whilst some now seem to seek a questionable route toward a resolution, many occupy themselves within the social networks, feeding from the vast pool of inaccurate information and I suspect often giving up! If they lack that fighting spirit then they must also fail to realise that injustice exists in all aspects of their lives and that some things are indeed worth fighting for; or perhaps I am wrong in this analysis?

Whatever my observations on Consumers, I have become convinced that Corporations actively engage in forms of Consumer Modelling to try and alter that Consumer’s response to a given situation (the present Consumer Modelling programme can be seen in the so-called ‘fake’ holiday claims debate). I have seen this activity through the active isolation of Consumers who complain, from the main bulk of holidaymakers, with the implicit message, that the majority are part of the group and that they are not. The Industry, with the Insurance Industry, have been active in feeding ‘listicles’ and ‘horror’ stories, all designed to make sure that the complaining Consumer is isolated or made to look stupid - it is a subtle underlying message and very carefully crafted. There is nothing new about Consumer Modelling, our work with our fellow Campaigners on Carbon Monoxide has revealed in the past the preference to ‘Model’ over ‘Regulation; it is a world away from 1997!

Campaigning work brings contact with other Campaigners. Over 22 years, I have never failed to be impressed by the large number of Campaigners based in the UK alone. Some have Charity status whereas others are lone parent’s seeking justice for the injury or death of their child or loved one. All have the experience of indifference, disdain and dismissal offered toward them, but all have the benefit of solidarity, unity of purpose and companionship, created over many years; they are indeed remarkable people.

In that mix, there have been the unsung ‘Whistleblowers’ from the Travel Industry or indeed the residents of countries and resorts who have confided and placed their trust in me and the organisation. Their courage is stunning, set against a backdrop of threat and in some cases a threat against their physical well-being or their lives, fighting against what they see as a threat to their way of life or the life of others. These are people who can demonstrate illegality and injustice and where I have been able to, I have managed to bring their story or observations to life in the salons of power. My dealings with these remarkable people not only served to demonstrate to me that the world is a much smaller place, but that Rights have no borders and that these injustices have indeed affected the very holidaymakers that we have dealt with. What is surprising, in the face of such evidence, how governments, both foreign and UK have taken the path of disinterest; is this really in the interests of their law-abiding citizens?

As Brenda and me recognised in 2003, we could not escape the changes to the legal market and by 2010, we faced our next crisis, that of funding, development and structure. By 2011 we made our decision as Directors to sell the Organisation but we were happily associated with one fantastic and dynamic lady, Fiona Fitzgerald. She helped me to bed-in the necessary structural changes and development, which saw Consumer engagement rise. Sadly Fiona moved onto greener pastures but by this time we were considered to ‘go to’ source for all things ‘travel consumer’. By 2015, further changes were experienced when the organisation was again sold.

I decided to leave the organisation in 2016 and as I do so in 2017, I do so with great pride, a sense of privilege, achievement and affection for the Grand Old Lady that is HolidayTravelWatch. 

Together we have done many great things, more than I can list in this article and achieved positive outcomes for Consumers, not just on a practical but also political level. We have changed the landscape for Travel Consumers forever and grew a brand like no other and its operations!

In recognising the past, I must pay tribute to my team, Lynda who was my longstanding advisor until late 2016, Mel, Sue, Margaret & Lyn - they were at the coalface with the Consumer and delivered humanity and passion for their plight; that was the hallmark of their skill and our work.

I must also pay tribute to all the Consumers who have been so engaging and kind to us over many years; they came to us because no-one would listen to their plight - no-one offered solutions. Whatever I may say about the way Consumer attitudes have changed, I often said that we were often dealing with ordinary people who often found themselves in extraordinary circumstances and they very often acquitted themselves with great dignity and courage.

I also applaud all those who helped in our development and all those fellow Campaigners who took this journey with me; I will still travel that highway with you.

As my tenure has concluded and the organisation travels into its new future, for those who now hold the reins of this Organisation, I wish you well, but I say that you have a heavy responsibility to carry forward the history and achievements of the last 22 years; that being one of the most dynamic and foremost Consumer Organisation’s in the UK and Europe!